Sunday, March 28, 2010

Choosing Great Educational Toys for Children

One of the readers of this blog (Aimee) asked me in a comment some months ago for advice on "a list of recommended age appropriate toys that are 'must haves toys that are worth buying." It was in response to one of my posts on 'The importance of simple play' (here) that talked about activities that don't really require much in the way of bought toys. There obviously is a place for bought toys. In this post I'll just talk about some of the toys I find interesting and which have worked with our children and grandchildren. I'm not trying to be comprehensive. I'll also offer some ideas at the end in relation to what I think makes a good bought toy.

For each of the toys I've chosen I will comment on what they are and how I think they help your child.

1. Timeless construction toys

No family should be without a couple of toys that encourage children to make or construct things. There are many types of construction toys that children can use from a very young age. Here are a few examples:

Above: David uses Knupferli with Jacob (his son and my grandson)

a) Wooden blocks of some type - at our house our grandchildren still use the same set of blocks in their original walker that our children did 30+ years ago (age 6 months to 3 years).
b) Lego - probably all three types will be useful. Our children's Lego is now played with by our grandchildren (suitable for age 6 months to 15 years).
c) Other more challenging connector toys - e.g. magnetic games like the Intelligence M-TIC or Knupferli Construction materials (see above). I used the soft plastic Knupferli materials in Kindergarten and only just rediscovered them (age 5-10 years).
d) Meccano - newer meccano sets (see right) are different, but they still combine all the old skills and interest of the metal Meccano I had as a child (age 5-15 years).

You can do many things with construction toys. Yes, you can build simply things like towers or shapes.
You can make houses, cars, anything (in the case of Lego).
In combination with other objects (e.g. plastic animals or people) you can tell stories - zoos can be created, aquariums, farms, space invaders and dinosaurs can invade villages etc.
In some cases your children can learn how to follow instructions and design plans (e.g. Meccano, Knupferli & Lego).

What's great about construction toys is that they:
  • Help to develop hand-eye co-ordination
  • Encourage creativity and problem solving
  • Can help to develop spatial and geometric skills
2. 'Toys' that allow you to create

These are not all toys, some are materials, but all allow children to create. Here are a few of my favourites:

a) Modelling clay - you can buy cheap multi-coloured modelling clay for $2-3 per pack, or you can make Play Dough. I've written a post on the creative use of modelling clay (here). Suitable for all ages.
b) Magnetic learning boards with letters and shapes (age 12 months to 5 years), see picture to the right.
c) Magesketch (or some other variety) of this magnetic sketching board (see an example at the top of this post), age 12 months to 4 years.
d) Felt boards - there are many products on the market (many that are very cheap), age 2-6 years.

3. Model people, animal and objects

There are many wonderful examples of toys that consist of people, animals, dwellings, and objects that go with them like dolls houses, castles, forts, arks etc. These allow children to engage in creative play either alone or with others for long periods of time. These simple objects can allow children to amuse themselves in a world of make believe and fantasy at home, in the car, at other people's houses etc. They are a wonderful way for children to creative (verbally) their first narratives.

Some of the simplest are perhaps the best:

a) Keep a box of animals - depending on the child's interests these might be farm animals (under 12 months), African animals, sea creatures, dinosaurs and people - these can be used alone or with other toys (see the shot of Sam above with his Leggo 'zoo').
b) Commercial sets like the Little People series are wonderful for young children - we have a set based on Noah's Ark to which we've added other animals that has kept all our grandchildren amused (0-3 years).
c) A doll's house will keep boys and girls amused for ages and their modern variations on the same theme with medieval castles complete within knights and dragons (age 2 -8).

4. Other categories

There are many other toys that allow children to have fun, learn, manipulate and develop fine motor skills. Here are just a few examples that I spotted at my local Toy Shop this week. If you live in Sydney Monkey Puzzle Toy Store is worth a look, it's one of the best toyshops I've seen. The owners know and are passionate about toys. Find a good local toy store where the owners choose, sell and enjoy toys.

a) Magnetic (Mudpuppy) Dress up Figures - these come in a metal box and the mannequins vary (e.g. sports model, pirate, ballerina, monster, mermaid etc).
b) Chicken Socks craft sets - These are cheap and have a variety of separate packets including 'Crayon Rubbings', 'Fun Felt', 'Simple Sewing', 'Hand Art' etc.
c) Perpetual puzzles - these are puzzles designed by Makoto Nakamura, add a new level of creativity by allowing the child to change the shape of the overall puzzle that is based on continuous and interlocking shapes.
c) Puppets - every house should have a puppet or two, there are many different types of puppets including finger puppets, hand puppets and string puppets.
d) Hungry Hippos - on the surface this toy might not seem to teach much but it helps children learn to count, helps them with hand eye co-ordination and reflexes, teaches them many social skills as they deal with winning and losing a game with some skill and lots of chance.

The above are just examples. After doing this post what I might do is feature specific toys at regular intervals.

A few principles that I apply in choosing toys

While there are single purpose toys that bring great pleasure and don't teach a lot (e.g. Hungry Hippos), on the whole, I expect a lot from toys. In fact, usually, I'd be looking for toys that offer multiple areas of learning.

1. Do they stimulate creativity and learning?
2. Do they encourage language use?
3. Do they require varied skills and multiple abilities?
4. Do they encourage the integration of many forms of learning?
5. Will they last (i.e. not fall apart)?
6. Are they good value?
7. Are they fun, interesting, challenging?
8. Will they sustain your child's attention?

There are obviously many great toys that I haven't mentioned. In my home I'd always want to have puzzles, lots of writing implements (crayons, pencils, chalk, varied papers), toys that teach numbers and letters, toys that train hand-eye co-ordination (through threading, putting things in holes etc), percussion instruments, Thomas Trains and cars (especially for boys) and so on.

Related Posts

All previous posts on play (here)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Listening to Children Reading

I've written before about how to listen to children reading (here and here) but I like to repeat this topic regularly, and as it's the start of the school year in Australia, it is the right time to do so. In this post I want to outline some simple advice for any adult listening to a child reading.

The benefits of oral reading

While there is very little evidence to support the use of 'Round Robin Reading' as a class (in fact it's the opposite, it can be harmful), there is value in a proficient or older reader (normally a parent or teacher) listening to a child reading. As an instructional strategy oral reading on a one-to-one basis has some simple advantages:
  • Anyone can do it
  • It ensures that the child reads a specific number of words each day
  • For the skilled listener (usually a trained teachers) it acts as a 'window on the reading process' allowing us to understand what strategies children are using, misusing, not using, what help they need, etc (more on this later)
  • It is an opportunity to build confidence and self esteem
But there are potential disadvantages:
  • It is slower than silent reading
  • The proficient reader does most reading silently, so this is the key reading skill we're working towards (with the exception that skilled audience reading does have a place and needs to be developed later) so it shouldn't be a total replacement for silent reading
  • It is teacher or parent intensive compared to silent reading (oral reading is mostly one-to-one or in small groups rather than individual)
  • It can be a source of frustration for the child and can lead to a loss of confidence and self esteem if the listener is unskilled
The key skills - controlled support and careful correction

Even as an adult, when we are learning anything we don't cope well if we are being constantly corrected. The way we listen to children reading matters. Reading is a difficult and unnatural activity that some children find hard. The things we correct, how we do it, the additional comments we make, and how we make them matter a great deal. Here are some basic 'Dos' and 'Don'ts'
  • Don't make unfavourable comparisons between the child you're listening to and another child. Avoid statements like "How come Jason can read that word but you can't?"
  • Don't feel that you need to correct every error, or teach every sound that a child seems to struggle with. Listening to a child read is not just an accuracy test. Besides, if the child struggles on more than 5 words on a page then the book is too hard for them (see 'Five Finger Test' in my previous post - HERE).
  • Don't ridicule a child as they read (even your own).
  • Don't make the sessions too long (10-15 minutes is ideal). It's better to have two short sessions each day than one that is too long.
  • DO relax - try to make it fun and enjoyable for you and the child. The experience should strengthen your relationship, not weaken it.
  • DO choose a good time & place - choose a good time when the child is fresh and you are feeling patient and perhaps less stressed. If as a parent it has to be after school give your child something to eat and drink and let them relax or play for a while first. And make sure you choose a quiet place without distractions.
  • DO select books carefully - choose the books well. Hopefully the book will be at the right level, and the child will enjoy it. If the books are boring speak to the child's teacher and try to substitute another book.
  • DO encourage the child and praise them - the purpose of the reading session is to help, encourage and build confidence, not test, frustrate and shatter confidence.
  • DO talk about the book first - read the title, look at the book, ask if he or she has read it before, ask what they think it's about etc. Maybe even read the first page for your child.
  • DO let the child hold the book (it's more natural and gives them a sense of being in charge).
  • DO talk about the book after reading (not as a test, just as a chat).
  • DO show patience, progress can be slow.
  • DO help them as they read but don't labour any teaching moment.
'Pause Prompt Praise'

One helpful strategy that parents and teachers have found useful when listening to children read out loud is 'Pause Prompt Praise'. This is a simple strategy for helping children as they read without turning the experience into a stressful experience for the child that leaves them feeling that they're hopeless at reading. Confidence is very important to aid reading fluency. The technique has three simple elements that are important if you are going to help young readers.

PAUSE - After the reader makes a mistake you pause for about 3 seconds and say nothing, this allows time for self-correction.

PROMPT - If the reader doesn't self-correct either give him the word or offer a prompt (e.g. give him the sound that he is struggling with; help him to sound it out; get him to re-read the sentence)

PRAISE - Encourage the reader by praising the fact that he has finished the page, had a go at a difficult word, had no or few errors, read fluently, and seemed to understand what it was about.

Summing Up

There is value in oral reading between a child and an adult or older experienced reader. But if this experience is little more than a stressful oral assessment of reading, the child will be harmed rather than helped by the experience. Exercise care when listening to children read - offer good praise and support and correct errors or miscues with care.

Further Help

If teachers would like more help with Running Records, Miscue Analysis, simple readability strategies etc then consult my first post on 'How to listen to children reading' which has some extra strategies and ideas (here)

'The importance of reading to and with your child' (here)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Key Themes in Children's Literature: Environmental Issues

As I have written in previous posts, literature has many purposes and benefits. It has the power to affect our lives, to teach, to offer meaning and purpose. Individual texts become part of our textual histories as they pass on timeless knowledge and truth, values and wisdom. Much of the richness of story that has been communicated through the ages has been distilled into great books. I summed up my three posts on The Power of Literature with these words:
Literature has great power to teach, enrich and transform us.
Literature can have man forms, countless topics and can address many themes, each of which have the potential to challenge and teach children. In this post I explore how some books deal with environmental themes. In a previous post on the work of Colin Thiele (here) I dealt in part with this theme, but this post is a more comprehensive attempt to look at it.

The varied responses to the theme

There are many ways that authors have explored environmental issues. In some books it is central to the book, while in others, it is secondary to the narrative and other themes. Here are just some of the ways children's books explore environmental issues:
  • Environment as creation and the metaphysical experience of our world
  • The relationship of people to the environment
  • The negative impact of humanity on the environment
  • A celebration of the environment, its beauty and wonder
1. Environment as creation and the metaphysical experience of our world

There are a number of children's books that simply celebrate the world as creation. Some of these books simply focus on the beauty of nature, while others offer creation accounts, myths and metaphysical explanations of the world and humanity's connection to it.

'The Waterhole' by Graeme Base

This beautifully illustrated book is centred on a waterhole that is progressively drying up. While the book is a counting book for young children, the constant focus on the waterhole and its diminishing size as the water is used by an international collection of animals, is used by Base to show how water is essential to life. Without it the land withers and dies and life is lost, but as the first drops of replenishing rains return life begins to emerge again.

'Enora and the Black Crane', Arone Raymond Meeks

The Aboriginal artist who wrote and illustrated this book tells the story of a young man who lived in a rainforest at peace and in harmony with the physical world. That is, until one day after encountering a flock of amazing birds he accidentally kills a crane with dramatic consequences. Enora and his world lose their innocence.

'The Rainbow Serpent', by Dick Roughsey

This is another Australian Aboriginal legend that tells the Dreamtime story of a time when there were only people and how Goorialla, the great Rainbow Serpent travels across the country with a dramatic transformation of the land and the resulting creation of animal life.

'The Fisherman and the Theefyspray', Paul Jennings & Jane Tanner (Illustrator)

This story tells of the encounter of a fisherman with a strange fish and its mother. He catches young fish from deep within the sea, just after its mother has given birth to this, the last young, of its species. The old man looks at the beautiful creature as its colour and beauty begin to fade away in the bottom of his boat and he returns it to the sea. It survives and he is changed by the encounter.

The Whales' Song, Dyan Sheldon (Author) & Gary Blythe (Illustrator)

This is the story of Lilly and how she is captured by the story of the Whales' song that is told to her by her grandmother. A species once so plentiful that her grandmother would hear them sing at night, but now they are just a memory of an era of whaling that has gone. Lilly's mystical connection with the whales is the focus of the story.

2. The relationship of people to the environment

This sub-category includes books that tell of the fine balance between man and his environment and the disastrous consequences when we get this balance wrong. In these stories it is not a matter of deliberate action, but rather ignorance and failure to plan effectively, which leads to the destruction of environments whose beauty was once a lure to people.

'Window', by Jeannie Baker

Jeannie Baker is a wonderful artist who is a master of collage who tells her stories with wonderful illustrations and a minimum of words. This book is in fact wordless that tells the story of a changing place when viewed from a boy's window. He grows from a baby to a man with the view changing from dense bush and diverse wildlife to suburbia, before he moves on to a new place on the urban fringe where no doubt the process begins afresh.

'Flute’s Journey: The Life of a Wood Thrush'
, by Lynne Cherry

Flute is a wood thrush who migrates from North America to Costa Rica. The story traces the hatching and travels of Flute and in the process introduces the reader to issues of endangered species, environmental hazards, toxic waste, loss of habitats and co on.

'The World that Jack Built', by Ruth Brown

This is an interesting picture book that plays on the idea of the well-known rhyme 'This is the house that Jack built'; but with a twist. The narrative follows the main character who is a black cat chasing a butterfly. The cat's trail moves from Jack's house in the idyllic English countryside, to the trees that gave the raw materials, the stream that flowed nearby, the woods etc. The cat eventually finds its way to a much different stream that flows by the factory that guess who built?

'Kenju's Forest', by Junko Morimoto

This book is the opposite message of 'Window', and tells how a boy with a vision to plant some trees in a rural farming environment sees his dream become a reality over his lifetime. And as it does, the forest becomes the playground for the town that eventually was to grow near his forest. It tells a more positive story about how humanity can improve the environment rather than just degrading it.

3. The negative impact of humanity on the environment

Stories in this category reflect man's careless destruction of the environment motivated by greed and ignorance. These are stories that tell of humanity's failure to see environmental damage and act to prevent it. They also tend to have a much stronger ideological message.

'Where the Forest Meets the Sea', by Jeannie Baker

This is another wonderful book by Jeannie Baker (perhaps her best). It tells the story of a boy and his Dad who go regularly to a wonderful beach in northern Queensland at a place where the ocean meets the edge of the Daintree Rainforest. This threatened landscape has been shrinking for decades. As the boy explores the rainforest he imagines what it might have been like 100 million years before when dinosaurs roamed. He finishes the day cooking fish on the beach and contemplates coming again someday. But in the background we see a landscape overlain by ghostly images of what it might be like when he comes back again, should development do in this place what it has done in many other parts of the Daintree.

'The Sign of the Seahorse: A tale of Greed and High Adventure', by Graeme Base

This wonderful ballad tells of the exploitation of an underwater world by a corrupt and evil Groper, his side kick Swordfish and a band of 'henchfish', who pollute a reef to drive out its inhabitants, secure their 'land' at rock bottom prices, and then sell them new homes on another reef. A tale of greed, corruption, and environmental exploitation, where good eventually wins out.

'The Lorax', by Dr Seuss

Many of the books of Dr Seuss offer a social commentary (see my post on Seuss here). In this story a small boy notices at the end of a desolate street on the edge of town, a ramshackle house with a memorial to the 'Lorax'. What was it he wonders as he gazes at the home of the Once-ler? The Once-ler drops his Whisper-ma-Phone and for a small fee tells the boy the story of the Lorax and the once beautiful Truffula trees that covered the landscape, and the creatures that enjoyed the environment they helped to sustain. The story of greed, excess, and environmental destruction ends with the Once-ler giving the boy the last seed of a Truffula tree. Perhaps, just perhaps, in his young hands there may be hope for this place once more.

'Lester and Clyde', James H. Reece

This is the story of two frogs one a young and mischievous youngster (Lester) and the other an older stayed frog named Clyde. Lester plays just one too many tricks and is kicked out of their beautiful wetland and heads off to find his own way in the world. He is shocked to find that not all ponds are like his, and in fact some have been destroyed and made unsuitable for frogs. He returns repentant and is embraced by Clyde and the story ends happily with the words of Clyde: "try not to worry, although it's so wrong, at least we're safe here...until Man comes along!"

4. A celebration of the environment, its beauty and wonder

Books in this category celebrate the world's biodiversity and beauty without pointing to problems or making strong comments about human action. These are books where often the environment is secondary to the story, but where everything about the book reinforces the value, beauty and wonder of our world.

'Aranea: A Story About a Spider', by Jenny Wagner & Ron Brooks (Illustrator)

This (as the name suggests) is the story of a back yard spider who weaves its wonderful web each night using its skill and the elements to survive. Its encounter's with man is just one of life's challenges, just as dangerous is nature's elements of storm, wind and rain.

'Wind in the Willows', Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows is one of my favourite books (see my previous post on it here). Kenneth Grahame manages to tell a wonderful tale of animals of the English wood and riverbank. It opens in spring, and the weather is fine and animals are stirring from their winter slumber. We first meet the good-natured and uncomplicated Mole discards his spring cleaning and leaves his underground home. He reaches the river, a thing he had never seen before and meets the wise and worldly Ratty (in reality it was a ‘water vole’), who sees life as something that must be lived along the river. A parade of rich characters is introduced against a backdrop of the wonderful physical world. Otter and Badger, Toad, Stoats and Weasels are introduced as he weaves his wonderful tale of friendship, devotion and the challenges and 'human' frailties of life. There are many wonderful versions including the more recent illustrated version with Robert Ingpen's wonderful art (here).

'The Little Island', Golden McDonald and Leonard Weisgard

This classic picture book was the winner of the Caldecott Medal in 1947. It is a fine example of a book that had its genesis in a place that formed part of the author’s life. Weisgard loved this island where he explored its waters. His wonderful illustrations capture the beauty and rich biodiversity of this place.

'S is for Save the Planet: A How to be Green Alphabet'
, by Brad Herzog and Linda Hold Ayriss (Illustrator)

This is a book for the very young. It is an alphabet book that focuses on environmental issues. The illustrations support the clever use of simple text to raise environmental issues and suggest ways to save the planet from environmental disaster. Suitable for children aged 3-6 years.

Related Posts & Resources

An Annotated Bibliography of Children's Literature with Environmental Themes (Here)

'Key Themes in Literature: A Sense of Place' (Here)

All posts on Children's Literature (Here)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Children as bloggers

As a keen blogger I know the various benefits of blogging as I'm sure do the readers of this blog. But how might we make better use of blogging with children? Many teachers have already experimented with blogging for children as have some parents. Most children don't need to be convinced of the wonder and worth of the Internet, but could we make better use of the Blogosphere? It has been estimated that as many as 12 million American teenagers maintain their own blogs. In this post I thought I'd outline a few basic ways in which children could become bloggers, and why.

Why might blogging be good for children?

There seem some obvious reasons for using blogs in the classroom or at home:

1. The Internet is an important form of technology that this generation needs to understand and learn to use for varied purposes. Just as we seek to introduce children to varied purposes for literacy and different texts and genres, we need to encourage them to explore the many applications of the Internet for communication and learning.

2. Each application that we experience on the Internet requires a range of web-based generic skills as well as some that are unique to the application.

3. Children need to experience web applications like blogs as creators. Just as we want children to use written narrative forms like literature as readers and writers, so too we want them to explore some web applications as creators not just users or consumers.

4. The act of writing a blog post can lead to significant research and related learning. For example, it is an excellent way to develop web comprehension and research skills.

5. Blogs offer authentic readers and audiences for children. So much classroom writing is simply for the teacher 'as examiner', but blogs offer 'real' readers who will respond as learners and fellow writers. This is powerful.

6. Blogs can offer a means for children of many nationalities to communicate and share their ideas across the globe.

7. Blogging can offer a wonderful means for children to practice a second language.

8. Using blogs as creators as well as consumers highlights the need for children to consider issues such as truth and fiction, privacy, copyright and so on.

How can teachers and parents use blogging to promote learning?

a) Showcase blogs

One of the most common ways teachers use blogs is to showcase children's work. The blog can be set up to showcase work in specific subject areas or can vary by form. For example:
  • Poetry and narrative writing
  • Drawings
  • Videos (class activities, class performances, readers' theatre etc)
  • Podcasts (personal stories, public speaking, family history, oral reports etc)
Here's a great showcase blog for a grade 5 & 6 (here).

b) Classroom News blogs

This is a common way for teachers to blog. It can have an important role in keeping parents informed about the work that their children are doing as well as being an excellent way to showcase children's work. Here is a 4th Grade class blog in the USA (here). News blogs offer less opportunities for children to compose than other forms of blogging but has a place.

c) Literature response blogs

This application offers children a greater opportunity to respond to the writing of other students. It is simply a way to take activities online that require children to respond to literature that they have read (or which has been read to them). Often the teacher posts the first entry or task and students then respond to the book that has been read. Here's one 7th Grade blog that does some reader response (here)

d) Writing blogs

These are simply blogs that allow children to share their writing. Here is a wonderful example of how one parent set up a blog to allow her child to write his own 'Choose Your Own Adventure' story (here).

e) Mirror blogs

This blog application typically encourages students to respond to a blog entry (often written by the teacher) that invites some form of reflection or comment. For example 'Mr Crosby's 6th Grade' blog (here). The name 'Mirror blog' is simply a metaphor that relates to the fact that the sites encourage students to reflect on their learning.

f) HOT blogging

Lisa Zawilinski has an approach to blogging in class that she calls 'HOT Blogging'. While I don't find the name that helpful, the idea of using a blog to develop higher order skills is useful. It involves encouraging children to share different perspectives on a topic and exchange information with one another. The aim is to develop online comprehension and communication skills while promoting collaboration. It builds on Nancie Atwell's idea of the Dialogue Journal. She suggests a 4-step process that involves:

Step 1 - Providing background knowledge - this first stage is for the teacher to set activities that require the students to find relevant sites and resources that relate to a topic (e.g. understanding the background to a book).
Step 2 - Offering invitations to share ideas or an interpretation of the topic (e.g. responses to characters, events, events in the story etc).
Step 3 - After reading the responses of classmates, students begin to summarise content, develop their ideas on the topic further etc.
Step 4 - Considering varied responses and appreciating the views expressed.

The Zawilinski approach (as she describes it) is too complex in my view, but simpler variations on the approach could be useful. The key elements are to prime background knowledge, invite responses, encourage students to consider and integrate varied views.

Summing Up

Encouraging children to explore blogging is a useful way to get them to explore the Internet while writing and reading for varied real world purposes and with authentic audiences.

The above should not be seen as the only options there are; be creative with blogs. Once you are familiar with the various options for setting up a blog, play around with your site and think creatively about how you might use the technology application to stimulate children to read, respond, write, reflect and learn.

Look for writing opportunities that encourage children to write for 'real' audiences.

Think of creative ways to get children writing together; for example, try using a 'never ending' story strategy with different students writing each entry to build on the previous entries.

Related resources

1. Interesting article on blogging by L. Zawilinski (2009, May). 'HOT Blogging: A Framework for Blogging to Promote Higher Order Thinking. The Reading Teacher, 62,(8), 650–661 (here)

2. Reading to Learn: Using 'Text Sets' (here). In this post I talk about an approach to learning that can incorporate the use of the Internet.

3. Classroom blog service providers - while you can use existing blog providers like Blogger and Word Press, there are a number of providers that offer templates for classroom blogging. These include:

a) Edulogs - offer advertisement free sites that can allow the teacher to control comments and limit access to the site. They also offer templates for students that allow them to build their own blogs.

b) Class Blogmeister - once again this is free to educators and allows teachers to connect to varied blogs. While there seem lots of inactive blogs here there are good examples and ways for teachers to connect with other teachers and classes.

c) ePals SchoolBlog - this allows teachers to connect to other blogs and offers varied design templates and useful templates for surveys, calendars, parents-only sections, controlled public access etc.