Written in cooperation by The Wyoming Quality Learning Network,
Leading for Children, Align, and the University of Wyoming.
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Welcome: What you say and do matters
What you say and do with adults and children matters.
Children learn with and from the important adults in their lives. That’s YOU! Regardless of your role, you bring learning to life for young children — in your own special way. There are so many ways in which your uniqueness matters for children. Your smile, sense of humor, the unique sound of your voice, the interests you share with children, and how you see your role in their education and care all influence how children experience you and the learning process.
How you are is as important as what you say and do.
Whatever your role in the lives of children, how you are matters. Children learn about the world through their experiences and interactions with you. How you choose to show up — your actions and words — models for children how to be in the world. You consistently send messages that shape how they see themselves, others, and learning. Notice how these adults are showing up as models for children:
- Pamela smiles at her 2-year-old son as she helps him get dressed.
Liam, a teacher of 5-year-olds, throws his head back laughing at a joke Miguel tells the class.
Lizette, a home-based caregiver, and educator, speaks in a soft, soothing voice with 7-month-old Kathy as she changes her diaper.
3-year-old Jonathan drops his milk onto the floor. Philip, the school’s custodian, kneels down beside him and says, “Jonathan it’s ok. Accidents happen. Together, we can clean it up.”
Suzannah, a city council member, adds “Recently we were asked to vote on an ordinance to build a new park. Before voting, I did research to find out how community parks benefit young children.”
How This Work Began
Learning is a process and not product-oriented. This is true for adults as well as children. We feel it is only fitting that we tell the story of the process that informed, crafted, and guided the words and wisdom in this resource.
This work began with a question from various leaders in the early learning field in Wyoming. It was formed in part by years of listening to the experts — those who have committed to the sacred responsibility of caring for and educating children. Could the dream of having one shared vision of quality in Wyoming be achieved? And, if so, how could it be done in a way that elevated the voices from the field? Leading for Children was invited to be a thinking partner with Wyoming stakeholders to shape, coordinate, and implement a process that would be respectful and meaningful to all involved — Wyoming’s children and families and all who serve and partner with them.
The best way to learn and grow is in the context of positive relationships and interactions where the environment is safe for the risks associated with learning to take place and where there are many and varied opportunities to activate curiosity, explore, and investigate.
Thus, the Wyoming Quality Learning Network was developed. Over the course of seven months, 30 early learning professionals and family members from across the state participated in an intense process to use their wisdom, knowledge, and experiences to build consensus and coherence around what quality looks like today.
All children deserve the opportunity to thrive! As Optimistic Leaders for children, we all play a role and have a responsibility to ensure that each and every child has access to the best learning opportunities in the context of healthy, safe relationships and environments. (Jablon, 2012)
How do we ensure that all children have the best opportunity to learn and grow? By having a coherent vision of quality. Coherent means logical and consistent. As we define what quality means in early childhood education, it is important for all of us to be on the same page, singing from the same song sheet, and having a logical and consistent understanding of what quality means.
In addition, we must make sure that the coherent vision of quality is shared and able to be understood and imple mented (used) by all the adults who educate and care for young children. When we describe quality in clear, concise words we “paint a picture” in our minds. This is critical to making quality holdable and achievable.
The Coherent Path to Quality
The Coherent Path to Quality™, a Leading for Children framework, was developed to make quality holdable, sharable, and achievable for all the adults in the child’s ecosystem.
The framework defines three dimensions of program quality: relationships and interactions, the emotional and physical environment, and learning experiences. Each dimension has “simple rules” or criteria for establishing shared understanding and for ensuring all children and adults thrive. These rules are a “package” — you can’t just pick the ones you like.
Children learn what they live. One unique feature of this framework is that it was developed with adults and children in mind. When we think of the Coherent Path to Quality, we think about its dimensions and rules from multiple viewpoints: adult with an adult, adult with child, and child with child. Simply put, what we want adults to do with and for children are the same things we should do with and for each other.
Who This Resource Is For and How It’s Organized
This resource was written with you in mind! While the primary audience for this resource is early educators — teachers, directors, and home-based caregivers and educators — it’s meant to support all the adults within the child’s ecosystem. Whether you are a family member, community leader, or kitchen manager in an early learning program, we hope this resource provides inspiration and insight and promotes a deeper understanding of your impact on the lives of children. It can be used individually as a learning and self-reflection tool or within a group to foster collaborative conversations, learning, and growth.
We’ve organized this resource into three chapters. Each chapter will take a deeper look at one of the Dimensions of the Coherent Path to Quality and its Simple Rules using vignettes and examples from Wyoming. These exemplars consist of photos and statements that articulate the element of quality and its importance.
Each chapter includes questions and prompts for reflection, both within the chapter and at the end. We invite you to use them as a way to:
- Activate your curiosity and notice and identify the effectiveness of your own practice and the practice of others
- Serve as a catalyst for conversations with others to improve the day-to-day experiences for young children and their families
- Nurture your own personal professional development and growth
- Practice using the Wyoming Coherent Path to Quality to guide your decisions and practice
Chapter 1: Relationships & Interactions
Interactions are the exchanges in words and gestures that you have with others. They occur all day every day. (Dombro, Jablon, & Stetson, 2020) When interactions convey the message, I care about you they lead to strong, trusting relationships. Notice ways in which “I care” messages are being conveyed in the following examples:
- Saying good morning to Amelia, your co-teacher, as she enters the classroom.
- Leaning towards Derek, a child in your class, as you’re both sitting on the floor and he tells you about his new puppy.
- Gently rubbing Susie’s back as she settles down for a nap.
- Saying to Philippe, thank you for helping Sam open his milk.
- Snuggling with your child as you read a bedtime story together.
- Bringing extra bottles of water to work for your colleagues.
Healthy interactions and relationships begin with you!
Children learn about relationships and interactions from the adults who care for them. The adults in children’s lives are the most powerful model for how to be with others. When the relationships and interactions are healthy and strong among the adults in the child’s life, the emotional climate supports a child’s well-being.
Cultivating self-awareness is vital to positive relationships and interactions. Self-awareness means understanding your feelings, preferences, biases, and motives. Why? When you understand your own emotions and preferences, you can manage them more easily and decide how you want to show up with others. This in turn affects the relationships you build with children and adults. Four Simple Rules guide our decision making as we engage in relationships and interactions: authentic, responsive, reciprocal, and consistent.
Simple Rule #1
Authentic means to be genuine in what you say and do with others. An authentic relationship is honest and real.
Interactions are authentic when they are sincere and come from the heart.
Authentic relationships begin with a genuine desire to get to know another person — to honor and appreciate the person’s uniqueness.
It means you are curious about them. What are their likes and dislikes? What brings a smile to their face? What are their interests? What inspires them? You want to get to know who they are and to build a real, genuine relationship.
Examples from Wyoming
Here are some examples of authentic relationships and interactions from Wyoming.
Take a moment to notice this interaction between a sister and her younger brother. Pay attention to how she leans into him and maintains warm eye contact. Without using words, she is communicating deep care, love, and connection in that moment.
Notice how the father and son snuggle in to read together. The father relaxes his body and holds the child close. This communicates to the child that the adult enjoys having experiences with him, making him feel valued.
Stories from the Field
Here are some stories from the field. Notice moments of authenticity.
- Rachel sees Navaeh in the reading area and as she gets ready to settle in beside her, she asks permission first. “May I join you, Naveah? I see you’re reading Pete the Cat. I would love to spend some time with you enjoying the book.”
- Teresa is a home-based caregiver and educator. She intentionally works with families to stagger drop-off and pick-up time to ensure she has time to talk with them in the mornings. She says “We serve families — not just the children. It’s important to me that I get to know the families just as I get to know the children. When families arrive, we sit for about five minutes to chat. It helps me to get to know the families and build relationships that are real. It’s more than, ‘how was your evening.’ It’s knowing Maria, Anthony’s mom, likes vanilla creamer and seeing her smile when I add it to the greeting area for families. It’s sending the message, ‘I want to get to know you as a person and not just as Anthony’s mom and I want you to get to know me.’”
Authentic relationships and interactions are built on genuineness that requires transparency and vulnerability; conveying the message I am real with you and it is safe for you to be real with me.
Simple Rule #2
Responsive means you notice and connect with actions and words that fit the person and the situation. Interactions are responsive when you give the other person what they need at the moment (a smile, a hug, or some assistance). Interactions that are consistently positive grow into responsive relationships.
Children and adults thrive in responsive relationships.
Building the foundation of successful development in childhood requires responsive relationships and supportive environments (Center on the Developing Child Harvard University 2020). When your words and actions are responsive to the cues of others, you become trustworthy. Children feel safe and cared for when they can trust you. When children feel safe and cared for, they are able to relax and learn
Stories from the Field
Here are some stories from the field. Notice moments of responsiveness.
- Six-month-old Jack is laying on the floor playing with a rattle. He looks over at Kim, his teacher, and coos. Kim stretches out so she is closer to his face, smiles, and says, “Hi Jack. It sounds like you have something to tell me. Let’s chat.” She has a back-and-forth conversation with Jack for two minutes. Then she smiles and says, I’ll be back soon. I am going to go check on Anna.”
- Four-year-old Sarah is in the block center building a skyscraper. Her teacher, Chen, sits quietly on the floor and observes as Sarah furrows her brow in concentration. She sits back and stares at the sketch she made and then back at her structure. She does this twice. Chen, noticing that Sarah has slouched down just a little bit, puts his hand on Sarah’s shoulder. Mirroring Sarah’s facial expression, he says, “You are furrowing your brow like this as you look at your skyscraper. I can tell you are thinking about what you’d like to do next. Would you like me to think with you?”
- Staci, mother of two-year-old Jamie, is having a conversation with Terry, Jamie’s teacher. Staci says “It’s so hard to leave her in the morning when she cries. Sometimes I just feel like I am failing her.” Terry lightly places her hand on Staci’s shoulders and says, “Staci, I know how much you love Jamie and you can tell that Jamie knows it too. Her whole face lights up when she sees you. You take so much time in the mornings with Jamie to help her feel settled in class before you leave. This helps her transition to school smoothly. She typically becomes engaged with her classmates or in play right after you leave. If you have time, I’d like to invite you to use the window to observe her without being seen so you can know that she’s ok. I bet that will help you to have a better day at work today.”
Responsive interactions are the highest form of respect and individualization; conveying the message I see you, I know you, and I am here for you.
Examples from Wyoming
Here are some examples of responsive interactions from Wyoming.
Notice how the father gets on his son’s eye level and holds the worm in his hand for the child to get a closer look. By responding sensitively to his son’s interest, he is building the child’s trust and confidence in self.
Simple Rule #3
Reciprocal relationships are two-way. Each person is equally respected and valued. The relationship is balanced so that both people feel seen and heard. In a reciprocal relationship or interaction, there is mutuality and reciprocity. When relationships are reciprocal there is an even exchange. It means there is equal space and value for the thoughts and ideas of all involved. When you choose to engage in a reciprocal relationship, you shift from the traditional you-and-me way of interacting with us. This creates room for collaboration and problem solving to occur.
Stories from the Field
Here are some stories from the field. Notice moments of reciprocity.
- Devi, who teaches three-year-olds, describes how she begins to build reciprocal relationships with children and families. “Many times, when school starts, teachers have set up the classroom. It conveys the message that children and families have had no say so in the environment. In contrast, I intentionally have welcome conferences with each child and their family. One of the things, I say is, ‘Please take a look around and explore the classroom. Is there anything you would like to change? Do you feel like this is an environment that will support your child’s development?’ I also invite them to drop an anonymous note with our classroom number on it if they aren’t comfortable saying it to me directly.”
- Chelsi, a teacher of four-year-olds, uses morning meetings to talk with children about the things they want to do that day. “I want the children to know that I respect their voices and thoughts. That I see them as capable of directing their learning. While I have identified the skills and knowledge I want to work on based on my observations, I want to follow the children’s interest and let their voices guide their learning. For example, I know I want to work with Rodney to extend his vocabulary. Today, he’s decided that he wants to work in the construction center to build a ship. While the class is outside with my co-teacher, I am going to make a list of words I can use when talking with Rodney about his building process.
- Casey, a teacher of three-year-olds, intentionally built a reciprocal relationship with her assistant teacher. She says “Lillian and I have been co-teachers now for three years. I know the term the district uses is assistant teacher and we simply don’t use that word in this class. Lillian and I are a team and we want the language we use when referring to ourselves with families and children to convey that. We sit and make classroom plans together. We both communicate with families daily and during family conferences. Just this morning, we adjusted our plans for today. Lillian noticed that the water in a large paint bucket outside her garage had frozen solid. She knew the children would love exploring it, and they did. We were able to naturally introduce so many concepts just in talking and interacting together.”
Reciprocal relationships and interactions are horizontal rather than vertical; conveying the message I want to get to know you and would like for you to get to know me.
Simple Rule #4
Consistent means steady and unchanging in your behavior with others. The opposite is inconsistent, unsteady, and erratic. When you are consistent in your relationships and interactions with children and families, you act in the same way day to day. Why is this important? Your consistent behavior makes you predictable. People know what to expect from you. You become trustworthy. Your consistency can lead others to feel safe.
Why are consistent positive interactions important? The serve-and-return relationship between children and their caregivers is vital for healthy brain growth and the developmental process. (Center on the Developing Child Harvard University n.d.) Erratic interactions can cause feelings of mistrust and fear and make it difficult for children to engage with caregivers. This greatly impedes children’s ability to learn.
Examples from Wyoming
Here are some examples of reciprocal relationships and interactions from Wyoming.
Notice the mirrored effect in this photo. See how the adult holds the infant close and looks into her eyes, smiling with complete delight. When their eyes meet the adult is communicating to her that she is seen, loved, and cared for. The infant sees the delight in her face, which causes her delight.
Notice the reciprocal interaction between these siblings as they make music with metal pots and pans and a wooden spoon. As they mimic each other sounds, they create a back-and-forth musical conversation. Look at the attentiveness given to the sister by her brother as she creates a sound, and the softness in her eyes as she plays.
Stories from the Field
Here are some stories from the field. Notice moments of consistency.
- A colleague shares: “When I was four years old, I went to a Head Start program in my community. I had two teachers. One of my teachers, Ms. K, was consistently warm and caring. She greeted us with a smile each morning and told us how happy she was to see us. She sat and talked with us at meals. My other teacher, Ms. M, would greet us occasionally. Sometimes she talked with us in a calm voice and other times she yelled. Sometimes if an accident happened — like spilling paint — it was ok but other times it wasn’t. I can remember having an accident while Ms. K was out of the room and being afraid to tell Ms. M.
- Amy, a 4-year-old, spills her milk during lunch. Her teacher Joseph notices and goes over to kneel beside her. He says, “Amy, it’s ok, accidents happen. Here are some paper towels. Would you like for me to help you clean it up?”
- Karen sets her alarm five minutes early each morning to allow time to snuggle with her daughter, Celia, before beginning to get ready for the day. Today she slept through her alarm and realizes she will be late for work. She jumps up and begins to get ready. Noticing the photo of her daughter on her nightstand; she stops, sets her watch for five minutes, and goes into Celia's room to snuggle.
- Lawrence, an agency leader, stays near the entrance of the center to greet families and staff at the beginning and end of each day. When he is going to be on vacation, he posts a picture of himself with a note at all entrances saying, “I’m away with my family and can’t wait to see you when I return.”
Consistent positive interactions strengthen relationships and foster a healthy climate; conveying the message you can trust me to be the same with you at all times.
Examples from Wyoming
Notice the genuine look of delight on the children’s faces as they play with the car. Think about the effectiveness of the teacher in supporting and modeling collaborative play. When children have regular opportunities to play together, they learn how to cooperate and share with each other while strengthening relationships.
Notice how the teacher intentionally places the snow between the infants and faces them towards each other. This supports the interaction and development of social-emotional skills.
Questions for Reflection
In what ways do you share your interests and ideas with children and families?
- Take a moment to think about transitions for families and children. Does your routine give space for you to welcome families and children during drop-off and pick-up?
- Do you respond to children’s questions in real ways?
- How do you ensure that what you say and do — how you show up with and for children — helps them to feel secure enough to express a range of emotion in your presence? How do you know they do?
- How do you partner with the other adults in children’s lives?
Tips from your Learning Network members to strengthen relationships and interactions:
- Cultivate self-awareness to guide how you interact with children and adults.
- Use drop-off and pick-up times as opportunities to get to know families.
- Help children understand their emotions and the emotions of others by putting words to them and saying them out loud for children to hear and begin to understand them.
- Talk with families to individualize ways to communicate and exchange information regarding their child(ren).
- Develop a system for exchanging information with other adults in children’s lives. Examples include:
– Using a notebook to exchange information between families and teachers.
– Having a designated place in each classroom to ensure all staff has access to information regarding the children in the class.
– Establishing a text group among family members to quickly exchange or share important information.
- Allow time in your day for self-care. When your needs are met you are better able to meet the needs of children.
Chapter Two: The Emotional & Physical Environment
The emotional and physical environment matter. The emotional environment is the atmosphere and climate of a space. It’s the feeling you get when you step into the room. The physical environment is the space itself and its contents. High-quality environments are free from hazards and dangers while supporting children and adults to feel empowered, respected, and ready to learn. For example:
- Tiffany, a teacher of infants, lies on the floor to look for physical hazards from the children’s perspective
- Daphne, a center director, has a table in her office so she isn’t sitting across from families and staff during conversations.
- Hillary, a teacher of three-year-olds, uses a picture schedule so children will know what comes next.
- Brian, a father of three, plays the song It’s the Final Count Down when it’s time for his children to tidy up their playroom.
- Valerie, a teacher of two-year-olds, makes sure her class eats meals at the same time each day.
- James regularly checks his son’s car seat to ensure it’s correctly installed.
Everyone thrives when the emotional and physical environment has been prepared with intention. The emotional and physical environment matter because they affect how we feel, how we relate to others, and our ability to focus on tasks. The decisions you make as you shape the environment for children and adults have a direct impact on their ability to learn and experience success.
Simple Rule #1
Safe means that adults and children are emotionally, physically, and mentally protected from discomfort and danger. The environment is intentionally designed to ensure that children are visible at all times so that they can work independently and be easily supervised by adults. In a safe environment, the needs of the adults and children in the space are met.
A safe environment tells our brains it’s ok to learn. Safe environments open the door for learning. When you feel emotionally or physically threatened, your body’s fight or flight instinct kicks in. When this happens, learning cannot take place. This is true for children and adults. What this means is that we must set the stage for learning to occur and regularly do a check of the emotional and physical space to ensure it is conducive for learning.
Examples from Wyoming
Here are some examples of safe environments from Wyoming.
The children are able to use materials in a natural setting to draw what they see while looking at the garden table and hills around them because the adult has installed railings to create a safe outdoor space for them.
The home-based caregiver and educator made the decision to create a safe space for children and families to experience the children’s art show during COVID. She beautifully displayed the artwork outside in an open space that’s easily seen by children and their families. This allowed the children to revisit their work and to experience pride as they safely shared with families.
Notice how the teachers have allocated ample and uncluttered space for children to move their bodies and enjoy singing and dancing together without injury.
Stories from the Field
Here are some stories from the field. Notice moments of safety.
- It’s a beautiful fall day at the Child Development Center. On the playground there are children building blocks, playing with ramps, and riding tricycles. Lucinda, a teacher of four-year-olds, notices Gregory preparing to join the tricycle parade. She walks over and kneels down beside him. “Gregory, it is a lovely day for a tricycle parade, isn’t it? I saw you walk over and begin to get one out - you’d like to join, huh? That sounds fabulous. Let’s go grab your helmet, it’s important that we keep your brain safe while you’re having fun.”
- Justin is playing in the park with his daughter Farran. While they’re observing a butterfly, there’s a loud crash at a nearby construction site. Farran covers her ears and begins to cry. Justin rubs her back and says, “that was a scary noise, wasn’t it? It’s ok, I am here with you and you are safe.” Farran gives him a big hug and tugs him towards the slide.
- Sharma is preparing snacks for her class. She realizes that she’s been given a new brand of crackers for the class. She gets a pack and walks over to the allergy list to ensure that none of the children have an allergy to any of the ingredients.
Safe environments are a pivotal part of learning; conveying the message it’s safe for your brain to investigate and explore.
Simple Rule #2
Respectful environments convey an immediate message of belonging. They make everyone feel welcomed, involved, and empowered. They are places where learners feel valued, seen, and heard. When you create a respectful environment, children are more willing to open their minds and listen to what you have to say. You can then empower them to achieve their highest potential.
Children thrive when the environment is respectful to them and the important adults in their lives. Think about a place you enjoy being — where you feel seen, heard, and valued. What is it about the environment that makes you feel respected? When children are in a respectful environment, they feel safe to express their feelings and thoughts. This leads to more engagement and overall joy. When the environment is respectful to the adults it models for children how to respect others and build feelings of trust that are needed to take risks in learning.
Stories from the Field
Here are some stories from the field. Notice moments of
- Six-month-old Kara is sitting in her teacher’s lap babbling. Her tiny hands are busy touching her teacher’s hair and glasses. She’s content. Her teacher begins talking with her co-worker. When she breaks eye contact, Kara begins to cry. Looking back into Kara’s eyes, her teacher smiles and says, “I’m sorry Kara. You
didn’t like it when I began talking to someone else. You aren’t ready for our conversation to end.” Kara smiles touches her teacher’s nose and settles back down.
- Tiffany notices three-year-olds Theo and Andrew tussling over a block. She moves closer to the boys as she observes. A moment later, she hears Andrew say to Theo, “You can play with this one, I’ll go get another one.” Theo says, “Thanks,” and the boys continue to play. She walks over and says, “I saw that you both wanted the same block. For a moment, you were struggling to see who could keep it. That was a problem that you worked together to figure out. Thank you for working together to find a solution.”
- Faye, a director in a program serving three and four-year-olds, uses learning center family nights as a way to invite families into the program and partner with them to support children’s learning. “When I talked with families to hear their perspective on their children’s learning, I found that they didn’t really understand the kind of learning that was happening as their children played. I knew that if I could partner with them to help them understand all that occurs during play, they would be able to support their children’s learning during play activities at home. I want them to be learning partners with their children and us.”
Respectful environments reduce the stress of harmful interactions that impede brain development; conveying the message you are valued.
Examples from Wyoming
Here are some examples of respectful environments from Wyoming.
Notice the care and decision to ensure the needs of adults are met in the environment. The soft carpet, lamps for warm light, plant, and a throw blanket on the couch. These elements help to create a calm and comfortable space for adults.
In this space, the children are freely using the materials in the classroom to support their imaginative and creative play. Notice how the adult has demonstrated respect for children as thinkers and owners of the environment.
Notice the intentionality with which the teachers created a respectful experience for all of the children during their picnic. She provided a large blanket with room for everyone and their food/drink. It supports connection and encourages being together. As the children face each other there are opportunities for shared experience and communication.
Simple Rule #3
Predictable means that one can know what to expect or anticipate. A predictable environment can calm and soothe your senses, provide stability and reliability, and create a sense of safety, or it can create internal chaos and overstimulate. For our purposes, we define predictable environments as those in which children and adults can relax, freely explore, participate, and think clearly. The consistency of the emotional and physical environment creates a calmness in the environment and those who are experiencing it.
Predictable environments promote independence and decision making. When an environment is predictable, children know what to anticipate from day to day. It means there is a predictable pattern or routine to the way things are done. This helps children to have a sense of agency by making decisions and independently navigating the space.
Stories from the Field
Here are some stories from the field. Notice moments of predictability.
- Loren, a home-based caregiver, and educator talks about how she uses colors to create a predictable, calm environment. “Life is just so busy! When I think about drop-off and pick-up times, it’s important to me that children and families know that when they step into my home, it will be calm. Often times, families are rushing in the morning to get themselves and their children ready for the day. When they come in the morning, I want them to already anticipate the calmness of our space. I use soft colors that are not overstimulating on the walls and for the materials I choose. You’ll also notice that the rugs are a nice solid color. I want the space to say, ‘take a deep breath and slow down, it’s ok.’ In the evenings, most families are trying to balance getting children to extracurricular activities, preparing meals, and so many other things. I hope that by offering them a calm environment, it will help them to transition and take a little of that with them when they leave.”
- Lynn, a teacher of three-year-olds talks about how having a predictable environment supports self-regulation. “Each morning when children arrive, we have a routine. I want my children to know that each day I am waiting and anticipating their arrival! The first thing I do is to greet them with a big smile and connect with them using something I know about them. For example, Noah just got a new puppy, which is why you heard me ask him what new tricks Bo has learned. “
- Nathan, a teacher of five-year-olds, sits on the floor with his class. “Let’s think about some of the things we did and learned today. Everyone gets a turn. We want to listen to each other with our whole selves, so take a moment to think about what you want to say. Tia is going to write your answers on the chart so we can see them.” After each child takes a turn Nathan smiles and says, “Wow — we learned so much today! Thank you for helping me to remember. Now let’s talk about some of the things we will do tomorrow. We won’t be able to go to our playground because it’s being repaired. Hmmm… what are some other things we can do outside?”
A predictable environment eliminates the stress of the unknown and promotes independence and decision making; conveying the message you’re in a safe place to explore and follow your curiosity.
Examples from Wyoming
Here are some examples of predictable environments from Wyoming.
Notice how the teacher sits on the ground with the children keeping her hands in her lap while smiling in support and encouragement of the children as they take turns. She leans the top part of her body forward to convey the message, “I am here if you need me.” Her actions and the way she invites the children into the activity let them know what to expect.
Teachers are taking the time to engage with some materials from the classroom. Notice the way each group has a designated space, apart from the others so that they can play. Identifying spaces for playful learning helps adults and children to pay attention to where their bodies and materials are in and how to be mindful of the others nearby.
Simple Rule #4
Accessible means to be readily available and easy to be reached. Accessible environments are organized to ensure each person can easily navigate it and experience success. Accessible environments foster confidence and independence and invite exploration. The emotional environment is accessible when adults are available throughout the day to respond to the needs of children. An accessible physical environment means each person in the space can move freely without hindrance and use all things in it with ease.
Accessible environments are designed with the learner in mind. Accessible environments foster independence and self-efficacy. Consideration is given to the age and development of the children, what you know of each child as an individual and the social and cultural context in which they live. Sounds familiar? It should. These considerations are parallel to the three core considerations of Developmentally Appropriate Practice. When you design the environment with the learner in mind, you set the stage for success.
Stories from the Field
Here are some stories from the field. Notice moments of accessibility.
- Alexis is a teacher of three and four-year-olds. She notices that one of her students, Chris, rarely utilizes any of the learning centers. She wonders if Chris’s leg brace makes it hard for him to sit on the floor. She sits with him at the table and says, “Chris I notice you keep looking at the block center and your eyes are getting bigger as Jessie’s structure gets taller. Would you be interested in building blocks?” Chris nods. Alexis says, “Would it be helpful to you if I moved the table to the block center so you can sit and build?” As she moves the table, she says to the children in the block area, “Chris would like to build with you, and we need to keep his leg from hurting. You can join ask Chris if you can join him at the table or continue to build on the floor.”
- Monica, a teacher of infants, is changing the diaper of 10-month-old Amari. As she talks with Amari, Tahlia, an eight-month-old, begins to cry. Monica says “Amari, Tahlia is crying. I’m going to talk to her so she can know that we’re here. Hi Tahlia. I can hear you, honey. I am changing Amari and will come to get you as soon as I’m done. Let’s sing together.” She begins to sing Hello Sunshine which is the song Tahlia’s mom taught her. Tahlia begins to settle down and coo.
- Sallyann notices that her children seldom use the art supplies in their playroom. She sits on the floor and realizes that supplies are on the higher portion of the shelf and out of reach. She rearranges the shelves to make sure all the supplies are within reach.
Accessible environments are designed with the learner in mind as a collective and individually; conveying the message this space is for you — you can be successful here.
Examples from Wyoming
Here are some examples of accessible environments.
Notice the way in which the environment is organized with defined areas of play. This supports children’s ability to independently navigate the space and anticipate where to find things in their environment.
Notice the big smile on this child’s face communicating pride in some hard work as he builds a structure that’s taller than him. This kind of engagement happens when children feel safe to try new things, to take risks all the while knowing a trusted adult is nearby, and accessible to them to offer support when needed.
Questions for Reflection
How do you ensure children and families know what to expect in the environment?
- Do children have the opportunity to interact with the same children and adults each day?
- Take a moment to look around the environment. Can families see themselves reflected respectfully in this space?
- Does the environment reflect the belief that children are competent and capable learners?
- Does the environment ensure children’s rights are being preserved in daily activities?
Tips to create positive emotional and physical environments from your Learning Network members:
- Get to know and use the names of children, their families, and colleagues.
- Invite families to share food or artifacts or anything that they would feel comfortable bringing to help have them and their families reflected in the classroom.
- Use soft colors in the environment to promote self-regulation for children and adults.
- When choosing furniture, consider the age of the children in the space.
- Use your policies and procedures to ensure families and staff know what to expect in the environment.
Chapter 3: Learning Experiences
Learning experiences are the interactions and experiences in which learning takes place. It’s the moment when something familiar meets curiosity; presenting you with the opportunity to act as a facilitator of children’s learning. Your role in this moment is to respond to and nurture that curiosity in a way that invites investigation. These opportunities for learning occur all day throughout the day. Here are some everyday opportunities for learning experiences:
- Two-year-old Peggy tilts her head up towards the wind as the breeze dances across her face.
- Five-year-old Scott gently holds a tadpole in his hand while fishing with his family.
- Cecilia, a kitchen manager, invites the preschool class to help her pick vegetables from the program’s garden.
- Brian, a program director, sits quietly and observes Kathy, a teacher of two-year-olds. He takes a photo to share with her later.
- Quasha, a three-year-old claps her hands as her friend, Tamara taps the drum in beat.
- 6-month-old Donje pumps his legs in excitement when he hears the sound the ball makes when his foot connects with it.
Learning is a process, not a product.
Learning is a process of building a new and deeper understanding of the world and, acquiring and refining skills. (Bickart 1999) Optimal learning experiences promote children’s ability to construct knowledge through exploration and investigation with time to tinker and ponder. They honor and foster children’s interest by engaging them in learning that is active rather than passive. Read the following vignette and notice the process of learning.
Anthony and Sherri wanted to begin introducing letters to their class of three-year-olds. They brought in apples of all colors and sizes for snack time. They asked, “Who can tell me what we’re having for snack today?” “Apples” several of the children responded. The teachers sat in small groups with the children and said, “Let’s explore the apples.” They had a rich discussion around the word apple and the sound an A makes, the fact that apples come in different shapes and colors, and why that might be. The children cut an apple and described the inside of it which led to a conversation about seeds and textures. Finally, they ate the apples.
Adults and children benefit when learning experiences build on existing knowledge or experiences and invite them to extend their thinking in a way that is the perfect balance of safety and risk. Learning experiences that are meaningful, exploratory, and actionable activate curiosity and invite the learner to tap into existing wisdom and take a small stretch to extend learning. These experiences make learning enjoyable which makes adults and children want to learn more!
Optimal learning experiences can be intentional or spontaneous. When you are present and in the moment, you are able to notice things that activate curiosity, create spontaneous learning experiences, and make meaningful connections. Think of yourself as being the trellis and students as being the tomato plant. Your role as the trellis is to support and guide partnership during learning experiences until they are ready to independently continue to explore and construct knowledge and understanding.
Simple Rule #1
Meaningful learning experiences invite the learner to connect something new to the familiar. For example, Hannah has baby dolls in her dramatic play center so that children can:
- Practice using gentle touches with others
- Engage in back and forth conversations
- Experience what it’s like to care for someone else
- Cultivate self-help skills as they play
High-quality learning experiences invite the learner to explore and construct by connecting the familiar with something new that the person can use purposefully.
When a learning experience is meaningful, the learner finds value in it. Why is this important? Learning new skills and knowledge is easier when the new connection is to something we already know a little about. We can find a connection with our own experiences, interests, and goals. Prior knowledge builds a bridge between what we know and new ideas and concepts. The new learning is a small stretch rather than a huge leap beyond the learner’s capability.
When creating meaningful learning experiences, here are a few things for you to consider:
- Has the learner seen it before? Learning experiences should invite and support learners to stretch their understanding in a way that is achievable. It is much easier to stretch when it’s something the learner has seen before.
- Is it accessible in their personal space? Concepts and skills develop over time as learners have the opportunity to explore and interact with materials. Learners benefit when they can access learning concepts and/or materials outside of the “classroom.”
When learners have the opportunity to touch materials and connect with them, it shifts the learning from mundane to meaningful.
Stories from the Field
Here are some stories from the field. Notice the ways in which the learning experiences are meaningful.
- Mescha and Kim want to create a learning experience that invites children to strengthen the muscles in their fingers to enhance fine motor skills and encourage creativity. They decide to add play dough, cookie cutters, scissors, and paper of different textures, etc. into the manipulative center. While discussing this they wonder if all of the children have access to playdough in their home. To ensure the children could continue to explore the materials in their home, they decide to extend the experience by making homemade playdough with the children and sharing the recipe with families, incorporating photos of the children making and using the playdough.
- Jess, a teacher of 5-year-olds, wants to introduce children to letters. In the curriculum she was given, there were letter charts to hang on the wall. While she understands the importance of early literacy skills, the letter charts don’t align with her philosophy about how children learn. After pondering, she decides that she will have the children create alphabet charts in the art center using letters and drawings. As the children create, she invites them to hang their pictures around the classroom.
- Four-year-old Jacob visits the zoo with his mother. While at the Lion exhibit, she notices that Jacob is captivated. He leans towards the glass cage and his eyes continue to follow the moves of the lion. She kneels down and says, “Jacob your eyes are following the lion — I can tell you’re curious about him.” Jacob nods his head. “Hmm,” says mom, “I wonder how we can learn more about lions.” “I know,” says Jacob, “we can read a book about them.” His mother responds, “That’s a brilliant idea. Would you like to stop by the gift shop to see if we can find one?” Later that evening they read a book about lions and learn together about lions’ natural habitats — the places they live.
Meaningful learning experiences are relevant to the learner’s interest and curiosity; conveying the message nurturing your curiosity is rewarding.
Examples from Wyoming
Here are some examples of meaningful learning experiences from Wyoming.
As the child experiences helping his grandmother make the cookies, he feels the trust she has in his ability and competence. This helps him to trust himself as he continues to grow and learn.
Notice how she allows him to independently scoop and place the cookies on the sheet and how he is fully concentrated on his work.
Notice how the teacher incorporated snow, a frequent part of the children’s environment. Her decision to offer the snow as a medium for exploration results in children learning in partnership.
Simple Rule #2
Exploratory learning experiences are those that engage children in hands-on investigation and exploration of materials, ideas, and concepts. During exploratory learning experiences, children are their own best resource. They use what is familiar to them and their physical senses to figure out the questions they’ve constructed. What is this? What can I do with it? How can I use it? This curiosity and opportunity to explore is imperative in the learning process.
Exploratory learning experiences spark curiosity, invite investigation, and nurture learning. Children are born ready to learn! Think about it. What’s the first thing an infant does when you hand them something? Put it in their mouth to explore how it feels. Toddlers often bang items to explore how they sound. That desire to actively explores follows us from infancy into adulthood if it’s nurtured. When you plan experiences that create space for creativity and support the exploration of ideas or materials, you set the stage for self-directed learning. You invite the learner to begin to ask questions and investigate to find answers. Here are a few examples
- What will happen if I…? Two-year-old Michael is sitting on the floor as his mother is cooking. He reaches into the cabinet and gets two pans. After looking at them, he begins to bang them together.
- How does this work? Lacy, a four-year-old, is playing in the science center with a scale. She furrows her brow as she notices that when she adds marbles to the left side of the scale, the right-side lifts. She’s curious and begins to try to figure out what makes that happen.
- Why does it work that way? Kerri, a teacher of two-year-olds, is preparing for family conferences. Last quarter, she noticed that conferences seemed to be more effective when they were held in one of the lounge areas. She begins to wonder what it was about the environment that created a more inviting environment for families.
Stories from the Field
Here are some stories from the field. Notice the ways in which the learning experiences are exploratory.
- Tia, a teacher of 3-year-olds, is sitting in the middle of a small group of children telling a story. “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly, I don’t know why she swallowed the fly.” All the children throw their hands up while laughing and say, “she won’t say why.” Tia puts her finger to her temple and says, “Hmmm, why and fly sound alike-they rhyme. What are some other words that rhyme?” The children then begin to excitedly say words that rhyme.
- Gina sits on the ground in her backyard with her toddler, Edward. A burst of wind blows sending a cascade of leaves into the air. Edward claps and laughs as he chases them. Once the last leaf falls he says, “Again!” Gina laughs and says, “How can we make the leaves go up again?” Eddie grabs a handful and tosses them in the air. “You did it, you made the leaves go high in the air” she replies. “I wonder if I can do it, too.”
Exploratory learning experiences invite the learner to experiment, invent, and create; conveying the message it’s ok to try and learn new things.
Examples from Wyoming
Here are some examples of exploratory learning experiences from Wyoming.
The children love being outdoors. Notice how the home-based caregiver and educator creates an opportunity for them to explore nature around them. Their eyes are focused on the plants and trees around them. Being able to examine nature up close sparks their curiosity and learning.
Notice how the adults lean in together with a shared focus on the photos they’re studying. Together, they are engaging in conversations that spark each other’s curiosity and promote collective investigation leading to a shared understanding.
Notice how the home-based childcare professional created multiple opportunities for children to explore materials in the outdoor learning environment. Her use of natural materials to aesthetically display materials invite children to explore and investigate them.
Simple Rule #3
Actionable means the learner can easily use what was learned for a purpose. The skills and/or knowledge they learn will serve them now and in the future. Here are a few examples of actionable learning:
- When Christina plays peek-a-boo with her baby, he is learning object permanence.
- When five-year-old Khateem is putting a puzzle together, he’s learning one to one correspondence and spatial recognition.
- When Samuel, an Education Coordinator, wedges a folded piece of paper under the leg of his desk to keep it stable, he is recalling balancing concepts likely learned as a young child.
Learning should serve a purpose. Think about a time you learned something new. Your curiosity was sparked and you enjoyed yourself. How would you describe your experience? Did it feel like it was connected to something of interest to you? Will you be able to use what you learned? We learn by doing and strengthen learning by doing.
Stories from the Field
Here are some stories from the field. Notice the ways in which the learning experiences are actionable.
- Four-month-old Leah is grasping for her rattle. When she moves her hand, she hears the sound it makes. Her eyes light up as she repeats the movement again. Noticing her excitement, her teacher Zaniah picks up a rattle and begins to mimic Leah’s movements.
- Miss Debbie approaches two 4-year-olds Luis and Carson who are arguing over the use of a firetruck. She gets down on their level and facilitates a conversation offering problem-solving strategies like the use of a timer so that both of them can have time with the fire truck.
- 3-year-old Kisha is playing with the sorting bears. Using her prongs, she carefully picks them up one by one. Once she’s transferred them all from the bin to the table, she sits and looks at them for a couple of minutes. Then, she leans forward and begins to group them by color.
Actionable learning experiences invite the learner to actively construct knowledge in a way that helps them experience success; conveying the message you are smart and capable.
Examples from Wyoming
Here are some examples of actionable learning experiences from Wyoming.
Notice how the teacher has engaged the children in learning that is collaborative and actionable. During this activity, they are learning mathematical concepts such as measurement and spatial relationships.
When adults have the opportunity to engage in open-ended play, they gain a deeper understanding of the learning process and can use this to support children’s learning. Notice how this teacher has made two ramps, one that extends straight down and another that has a bend. As she watches the red and green boxes move down the ramps, she’ll notice how they move similarly or differently. Her observations will help her decide what to do next.
Questions for Reflection
- How do you support both the individual and collective interests of children?
- Are learning opportunities connected to children’s needs, interests, questions, or curiosities?
- Think of a recent learning experience you engaged in with children. In what ways did you nurture their curiosity?
- Are children able to use materials in the environment in various ways?
Tips for creating optimal learning experiences from your Learning Network members:
- Allow ample time for children to explore and engage with materials and follow their curiosity.
- Show children you respect them as learners. For example-allowing children to label and leave materials if they aren’t done with them.
- Trust the process of learning.
- Think of lesson plans as “planning for possibilities” to allow flexibility on the journey of discovery together.
We hope that this is a resource you will use regularly in your work with children, families, and colleagues. Perhaps you’d like to start a book study with a few colleagues or share it with families through your family resource area. However you decide to use it, our desire is that it will serve as a catalyst for rich reflections, spark your curiosity, and invite you to explore your practice and notice how your decisions are making a difference for children.
This resource is a result of a deep partnership between Leading for Children and a team of thought leaders across all roles and geographies in Wyoming.
This work simply couldn’t have happened without the wisdom and vision of the Learning Network members. Their words and ideas are reflected on nearly every page of this document. This cross-functional and geographically diverse group of local champions for children generously gave numerous hours a month to provide Leading for Children with the material for this resource. We thank you for your sharing your hearts with us, lending your wisdom to this work and for your commitment to ensuring high-quality care for Wyoming’s children.
We would like to thank Nikki Baldwin of the Wyoming Childhood Outreach Network, who was generous with her time, her expansive knowledge, and pictures of her grandbaby to keep us smiling. Becca Steinhoff at Align masterfully ensured that we were able to understand all of the necessary contexts while consistently and passionately focusing on a coherent and consistent vision for all children across the state of Wyoming. To the others on the Align Team, Susan Kanten and Ellie Gardner, thank you for holding the vision while also executing the important and often overlooked details.
We are so fortunate to be a part of the amazing team at Leading for Children. We express our deepest gratitude to Judy Jablon who offered thought partnership, guidance, and expertise from her 30+ years of making quality accessible for all audiences. Lauren Farmer and Gretchen Henderson both kept us organized and moving forward as they gracefully and masterfully handled the details of this work. And Christine Shrader shared her superpower of noticing moments of effectiveness. We would like to extend thanks to our partners in Alabama, New Jersey, and Mississippi for enriching this resource with photos of high-quality environments and interactions. And thank you Erin Murphy for making this resource beautiful.
Lastly, thank you to Gracie, Jacob, and Anna for the daily reminder that all children deserve to be valued, respected, and loved.
Learning Network Members
Here are the members of your Quality Learning Network:
Andrea Van Vlerah
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