• Open-Ended Play: Its Value and Characteristics

    Open-Ended Play: Its Value and Characteristics

    Open-ended play

    “Go play!” Have you ever spoken these words to your child? Turns out you’re not being selfish – indeed, by urging your child toward open-ended play, you are looking out for his best interest. According to Jean Piaget, “Play is the work of childhood.” 

    Swiss scientist and developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who died in 1980, educated the world as to the cognitive development of children. Piaget believed that children take an active role in the learning process, essentially performing experiments all day long.

    Like little scientists, they interact with the world, making observations as they go about their days.

    Children continually add to their knowledge of the world via these interactions, sometimes building upon existing knowledge or adapting previously held beliefs. Piaget held that, rather than being ‘little adults’, children have inherently different methods of thinking than adults.

    Furthermore, there are both qualitative and quantitative differences in the thought processes of younger versus older children.

    Based on Piaget’s theory of child development, and knowing that children learn EVERYTHING from their environment, what, exactly, should parents put in that environment? What should children play with?

    Toys Matter

    There’s certainly no shortage of toys available to purchase. Go to WalMart or Target, and you’ll be inundated with loud, colorful playthings at every price point.

    How about a doll? Or a drum set? What will your child learn from that – how will a doll impact your child’s development?

    Let’s talk about the best choices in toys.  This article isn’t a resource for buying specific toys, but rather it’s an explanation of open-ended toys, their purpose and value.

    We’ve all been the parent cleaning up after our preschooler’s birthday party. Gathering wrapping paper and packaging, plastic silverware and half-eaten, frosting-heaped cupcakes.

    Surveying the room, now filled with new playthings, we see our wondrous, already-gifted child, playing……..inside a box. THAT – that box – is an open-ended toy.

    Open-Ended Toys are Ideal

    How on earth, you wonder, could a cardboard box, whether open-ended or not, have more inherent play value than a scientifically-researched, state-of-the-art, $50 toy? WHY is my kid more attracted to that BOX than he is to this top-ten-parent-recommended plaything?

    Great question. The answer is perhaps less complicated than that cardboard box. One word: options.

    Open-ended toys have limitless options, while that $50 electronic keyboard has exactly one function – to play music. Valuable? Of course! What fun it is to play music! A keyboard will produce hours of melodic (read:noisy) fun…until it doesn’t.

    Either it breaks, the batteries wear out, or the child gets just plain tired of it. Or someone (not you – of course, not you) hides it.

    But the box? You will have to wrestle that box out of your kid’s hands.

    As in, literally have to throw it out when your child is out of the house.

    You may even resort to taking that box to your mother-in-law’s on trash day so that your kid doesn’t ‘rescue’ the box and bring it back into the house.

    So we’ve established that this box has lots of value as a plaything. What, exactly, is your child learning, developmentally, while playing with a box? What does open-ended play mean, anyway?

    Fine Motor Skills

    Ripping off the remaining wrapping paper and tape is great exercise for small fingers and hands. Perhaps your child will decorate the box using crayons or markers – maybe even paint. All of these activities strengthen those muscles that enable a child to hold a pencil, tie shoes, grasp a crayon, move a bubble wand, and zip a zipper.

    Gross Motor Skills

    Crawling, jumping and running through and around the box improve your child’s gross motor skills, as does balancing and mastering an obstacle course. Every time he climbs into or out of that box, he is getting stronger and more proficient at moving his body!

    Social-Emotional Development

    Your child might have siblings, and they might play with that box together. What a great opportunity to build social-emotional skills like working together, sharing, compromising, negotiating, empathy, sympathy, etc. It’s a BIG job to manage your own feelings! Inevitably, conflicts will arise – how will your child get through these conflicts? Will he talk, cry, whine, hit, or something else? Each time he navigates a disagreement, he learns tools for the future!

    Language/Literacy Skills

    Deeply connected to social-emotional skills, language skills are necessary for all of us to get through the day. We communicate verbally as well as non-verbally. Has this box suddenly turned into a bus? Through pretend play, your child will use language to test out new words relating to buses! Drive, horn, honk, exit, money, seat, etc. – what fun he will have trying out this new vocabulary! Language and literacy also refers to the written word, which might involve making tickets for the bus, or writing the name of the bus on the side of the box. Maybe your child will need a name tag because he’s the bus driver!

    Cognitive Skills

    Your child will be solving problems and making decisions in his own head before you hear one word of it! Where does his bus go? What’s that one song people sing about a bus!? Oh, yeah! ‘the wheels on the bus go round and round…’

    Does your child focus on creating his bus? Is he busy for thirty minutes solid before coming up for air? Or maybe he’s distracted by so many ideas at once. Open-ended play can be changed immediately by your child – with no adult help!


    This is where a box beats out a keyboard every time. On Tuesday, your child is ‘driving a bus’ with that box. By Thursday, the box has turned into a castle, and your child is the king. Your dog is a knight. Imagination has no limits.

    THAT is the value of a box – or, really, any open-ended toy. No amount of technology can do for the developing child’s brain what a box, a pile of clay, or a tub of wooden blocks can do.

    Tell your gift-giving friends, and remember this on your next visit to the toy aisle. You don’t need expensive toys – nor do you need a lot of toys. For engaging, self-directed learning to happen in your home, you need toys to encourage open-ended play.

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book: Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.
    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:
    Outdoor Play: Why Does it Matter?
    Type of Play for Development
    100 Simple Things to do Outside With Your Kids
    Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play
    Top Toys to Encourage Outdoor Play
    7 Essential Playroom Spaces (and why you need them)
    The Power of Play
    What I’ve Learned about Early Childhood Education

    Read More

  • Free Learning from Home Schedule (Printable)

    Block Schedule to Create a Daily Rhythm

    Having a daily schedule for your family is important as it sets up a predictable routine for your kids. Kids thrive on structure but that doesn’t mean that you need to have an hour by hour schedule with explicit activities booked for every minute of the day. In fact, it’s often less stressful for everyone to allows for some flexibility. Having a daily rhythm allows you to set the tone for the day, but not feel trapped or frustrated when something doesn’t go exactly as planned.

    A block schedule allows you to think about your day in manageable chunks of time–approximately 2-3 hours at a time. Long enough for you to accomplish tasks or for your kids to really engage in something, but short enough to provide enough changes that they don’t feel stuck.

    Below is the sample block schedule that works pretty well for my family. We do shift things around when needed, and every day isn’t the same but I find having a simple block schedule allows us to create a daily rhythm for our family.

    Click here for the printable block schedule to help you create a daily rhythm for your family.

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips or reorganize your playroom check out my e-book:

    Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.

    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:

    How to Rock Distance Learning During School Closures

    How to Continue Your Child’s Education During School Closures

    5 Tips for When School is Closed

    Free Self-Directed Learning Calendar (Printable)

    100 Positive Things Parents Are Experiencing Right Now

    Understanding Schema Play

    The Power of Play

    The Ever Growing Importance of Outdoor Play.

    Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play

    100 Simple Things to do Outside with Your Kids

    Read More

  • How to Rock Distance Learning During School Closures

    We’re all overwhelmed right now and can use some tips for distance learning. As teachers, we’ve been thrown a curveball. You are no longer a teacher within a building with resources and live people, you’re an online teacher. Some of your learners may not even have internet or digital access to “see” you. As parents, we’ve been told that our children are now essentially being homeschooled. Sure, there will be resources (through remote/distance/or e-learning) from teachers, but it’s not the same as having your student at school.

    I am feeling the pull in both directions right now, as a middle school teacher and a mom to a third-grader. As scary as this is, I know we can rock distance learning during school closures with these tips!

    Tips for Distance Learning

    Be flexible.

    Whether you are a parent or a teacher, this is your time to let things go. You don’t have to cover everything in a curriculum guide or every enrichment suggestion a teacher sends you.


    • Take advantage of beautiful weather and take a walk (with appropriate social distance) around the neighborhood.
    • Let your child’s curiosity guide what they learn. Try having your child explore their own passion project at home!
    • Allow a later start and flexible scheduling if your child’s class is not meeting “live”. Some school start times are SO EARLY. This is a chance to have your child work when they learn best.


    • Don’t feel like you have to cover everything in your curriculum. It’s not feasible, and it’s not necessary. Focus on your end goals. What do you want your students to know and be able to do? How can you get there digitally?
    • Know that this is new for everyone. Chances are, you’ve never taught online. Your scholars haven’t been online learners.
    • If you are live teaching, give your students a bit of time at the beginning of class to share. Your learners may be struggling with social distancing right now. Some of their parents may have lost their jobs. Let them share what’s on their mind.

    Pay attention to social-emotional needs.

    At home, I am encouraging my daughter to talk about what she’s feeling every day. I do the same with my students. Pre-social distancing, I had a Google form where the kids could “check-in”. I adapted this from several other teachers online to make it my own for my students.

    This works just as well when the students are participating in distance learning.

    Here are some questions you’ll want to ask your students on the Google Form:

    How are you feeling today?

    I give multiple-choice options to answer this question. That way, in my spreadsheet, I can quickly scan the students that need a check-in or conversation.

    • 1. I am great.
    • 2. I am OK.
    • 3. I am “meh”.
    • 4. I am struggling.
    • 5. I am having a tough time and wouldn’t mind a check-in.
    • 6. I am not doing great.
    • For younger learners, you may want to use emoji options to have them express how they are feeling.

    How did you sleep last night?

    On a scale of 1-5 (little to no sleep to a perfect night of sleep), ask your students how they are sleeping. If you notice trends, you may want to have conversations with students, parents, or your counselor to make sure your students are getting enough rest to keep them healthy.

    How was your breakfast or lunch?

    I give a scale of 1-5 (skipped breakfast/lunch to the best breakfast/lunch ever). If you see that your students are frequently not getting to eat, you can reach out to your school counselor or administrator to help parents get resources if needed.

    Anything else I need to know?

    Give your students a chance to share things that are going on in their life. This is an overwhelming time for everyone. Leave this question optional since many students will be managing just fine!

    Other questions

    Daily check-in forms are also places to ask quick check for understanding questions or just for fun questions (What Netflix show are you watching? What do you miss the most about school? Who is your favorite Disney character?). You may ask your students to provide questions as well!

    Don’t make it all about the tech.

    I write a blog called Creative Tech Teacher, but I don’t think distance learning needs to be centered around technology. If your students have the tools to connect with you digitally, go for it! However, focus on learning, not the tools.

    For example, I am having my students write a historical account of their time away from school. They’ll do daily journaling using Google Slides with a template I share. However, if they want to write a paper journal or scrapbook, I will let them! It’s not about the tech; it’s about the learning.

    If your students do have access to the internet and devices, here are some awesome tools you may want to use for remote or distance learning!

    Embrace play!

    Don’t forget to give your students (and your own kids) time to play and explore during this time. Whether it’s playing outside (no play dates for now) or free play activities engaging their imaginations indoors, let your learners have time to play and share about their experiences!

    Ask for help.

    One of the few benefits of being away from my classroom is the way I’ve seen the community (and really the world) come together. Teachers are sharing their resources, parents are praising teachers and asking for help, and we’re all in this together! Some of my colleagues started a GlideApp (it is a website but looks like an app) where everyone is sharing and curating resources to help teachers during this time. Search for resources or add your ideas. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I promise that if you send me an email (see my website in the bio), I will do my best to help you during this time!

    We’re all in this together. Whether you are a parent or a teacher, follow these tips to learn how to rock distance learning during school closures. Ask for help, be flexible, and try new things!

    Biography: Jen is a middle school public school teacher and PhD student in Omaha, Nebraska. She writes about education at Creative Tech Teacher.

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  • Free Self-Directed Learning Planner (Printable)

    Self-Directed Learning

    What is self-directed learning? The process by which the student takes the initiative about what, how and when to learn. This includes:

    • Figuring out your own learning strengths and weaknesses
    • Setting goals
    • Deciding on and planning activities that support your learning
    • Searching for resources to support you in your journey

    Use this planner to help you visualize your weeks. Make sure to build in time to rest, relax, and get outside.

    Click here for the printable self-directed learning planner

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book:

     Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.

    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:

    Understanding Schema Play

    The Power of Play

    The Ever Growing Importance of Outdoor Play.

    Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play

    100 Simple Things to do Outside with Your Kids

    What is Montessori–Understanding this Early Childhood Education Philosophy

    Reggio Emilia — A Child Centered Learning Approach

    What is Waldorf — A Spotlight on Waldorf Education

    Read More

  • Invitations to Play: A Misunderstood Concept

    The Often Misunderstood Concept of “Invitations to Play”

    Building off the concept of schemas is the idea of creating invitations to play. Simply put, an invitation to play is when an adult arranges toys in a way that is meant to spark a child’s interest. This is an amazing way to introduce new toys or get your child to expand their play by providing them with opportunities to make connections between toys they may not have seen for themselves.

    But there seems to be a fairly common misunderstanding about the purpose of invitations to play. This concept is directly derived from the Reggio Emilia philosophy of early childhood education. Reggio Emilia really focuses on following the child’s interest and using the environment as a third teacher. The materials provided in the child’s environment are meant to encourage exploration and spark interest without needing direction from adults.

    This concept has made its way from Reggio-inspired classrooms to the everyday parent who is looking to spark their child’s imagination. There are blogs, Instagrams, and Pinterest boards solely dedicated to giving moms ideas for invitations to play. And that’s great. However, I think it’s important to note a few things.

    I see moms constantly looking to get ideas for invitations to play. Sometimes they seem stressed because they “can’t think of anything” or they are focused on providing their kids the perfect setup. I think that the concept behind creating invitations to play has gotten a little lost. First, you don’t NEED to be doing this on a daily basis. In fact, you don’t need to be doing it at all for that matter. You child is perfectly capable of creating their own scenes for play if left alone with their imagination. That said, I understand wanting to–maybe it brings you joy or you appreciate the way it allows your kids to play with things that might not always be top of mind for them. That’s amazing. You’re crushing it…

    If you want to stay true to the Reggio philosophy, I would encourage you to keep in mind that creating invitations to play is best done when you’re observing the schema (or schemas) that your child is really focused on in the moment and using that knowledge to create simple setups that build on their chosen focus. The idea is to follow the child.

    AND…Don’t stress if this is not your thing (it’s not really mine!).

    You can get TONS of ideas off Instagram and Pinterest, just PLEASE don’t beat yourself up over not being able to create picture-perfect invitations to play every day. I promise your little one will survive.

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book:

     Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.

    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:

    Understanding Schema Play

    The Power of Play

    The Ever Growing Importance of Outdoor Play.

    Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play

    100 Simple Things to do Outside with Your Kids

    What is Montessori–Understanding this Early Childhood Education Philosophy

    Reggio Emilia — A Child Centered Learning Approach

    What is Waldorf — A Spotlight on Waldorf Education

    Read More

  • 100 Positive Things Parents are Experiencing Right Now

    Right now our world is filled with news about a virus spiraling out of control. Whole cities shutting down. Families being quarantined. Schools, businesses, restaurants and parks closing indefinitely. It’s a horribly stressful time for everyone.

    That said, it is in these times that it is the MOST important for us to look for the positives. There is always a silver lining.

    In just a few days, parents all over the country (and the world) have had their worlds turned upside down. Often having to work from home while also trying to continue their children’s learning.

    Read this list to see what parents have found to be unexpectedly amazing about having their family stuck at home.

    100 Positive Things Parents are Experiencing Right Now

    1. Discovering that your child has an incredible talent you never saw before.
    2. Being able to play with you kids during a lunch break.
    3. Drinking hot coffee with your significant other instead of in the car on the way to work.
    4. Being able to read your kids books before bed.
    5. Enjoying more meals together.
    6. Slow mornings that allow for a little reading, play or conversation before “going to work.”
    7. A longer shower.
    8. Comfortable clothes all day. Hello leggings!
    9. Learning new ways do elementary math.
    10. Introducing your kids to old movies.
    11. Reconnecting with nature, going on hikes, and bird watching.
    12. Teachers showing their ability to adapt.
    13. Parents showing their ability to lead their child’s education.
    14. Cancelling of standardized tests.
    15. Kids having time to engage in true play.
    16. More opportunities home cooking.
    17. Extra time with kids before they start formal schooling.
    18. Perfect time to potty train!
    19. Time for daily snuggles.
    20. Kids are able to sleep until their bodies are ready to wake up.
    21. Kids can slow down and enjoy breakfast and lunch.
    22. Watching your older children help support their younger siblings.
    23. Children making friends with kids around the country.
    24. Practicing language skills with children across the globe through online video chats.
    25. Grandparents tackling new technology to be able to see their grandkids.
    26. No alarms going off in the morning.
    27. Not having to pack lunches and snacks every morning.
    28. Being able to finally have a conversation with your teenager.
    29. Kids helping to cook and trying new foods while at home.
    30. Coming to the realization that your family is WAY over scheduled.
    31. Connecting with college aged friends and family to provide supplemental educational opportunities.
    32. Letting go of housework and reconnecting with family.
    33. Having extra time to learn new skills (riding a bike, knitting, gardening)
    34. Kids recognizing just how responsible and productive they are when they put their minds to something.
    35. Kids learning how to self-regulate their own schedules and take responsibility for their work.
    36. Having time to pursue passions outside of academic curriculum.
    37. Kids having ability to work on school work at their own pace without fear of judgement.
    38. Watching your kids take on projects just because they are interested in the topic.
    39. Being able to witness your child’s true ability shine through.
    40. Doing everything in pajamas.
    41. Wearing no real clothes so less laundry!
    42. Feeling like you finally understand your child’s needs, strengths and weaknesses and how these impact learning.
    43. Realizing homeschooling is not half as bad as you imagined it would be (in fact sort of liking it).
    44. Raising expectations for practical life skills and children rising to meet those expectations—hello laundry help!
    45. Breathing in more fresh air.
    46. School aged children starting to learn to play again.
    47. More awareness of amount of screen time.
    48. Being pleasantly surprised by what your child knows and can do.
    49. Learned to let go and let children do more for themselves.
    50. The ability to be a part of your child’s every day education and watching them grow.
    51. Breastfeeding moms not having to pump while at work!
    52. Learning that life needs to slow down and that we are rushing through moments that should be savored.
    53. Coming together to do all household work.
    54. Seeing first hand what classwork genuinely excites your child and what does not.
    55. Mid-day dance parties.
    56. Hearing your kids say they are actually enjoying learning.
    57. Being able to lean into the subjects and content you’re interested in and do them with your child.
    58. Sleeping in!
    59. Being aware of self-care while my children are watching.
    60. Siblings being able to spend more time together playing and learning.
    61. So much extra time to read and do things your enjoy.
    62. Actually laughing together.
    63. High fives from your kid when they figure something out.
    64. Whole families being able to take walks together.
    65. No fear of missing out.
    66. Being able to catch up on tasks and projects you’ve been putting off.
    67. Being able to discover new learning tools that you didn’t know existed—opening up a new world of learning for yourself and your child.
    68. Less arguments and no rushing to get dressed and out the door to catch the bus.
    69. Communities coming together to share resources, get creative and support each other in so many ways.
    70. Learning so much about your child’s real interests and passions.
    71. Being able to teach your child things you love to do.
    72. Realizing it’s okay to not know how to do something and figuring things out along the way (while your child watches)
    73. Learning to appreciate the flexibility in schedule of having kids home.
    74. Connecting on such a personal level with teachers and parents.
    75. Developing a new found respect for what teachers do every single day.
    76. Feeling a sense of pride for conquerer the learning curve of homeschooling.
    77. Learning to be more intentional with our time and resources.
    78. Becoming more aware of how your family can be more eco-conscious.
    79. Kids engaging in real authentic learning.
    80. Having more face to face and quality time with your family.
    81. Older siblings are being given the time and space to reconnect and enjoy each other’s company.
    82. Children of all ages learning practical life skills!
    83. Knowing what your kids are learning, not just hearing about it after the fact.
    84. Not worrying about whether or not your kids are eating enough at school.
    85. The ability to catch up with friends who you’re normally too busy to call.
    86. Realizing that you have been way too caught up in your career to appreciate all the good things.
    87. Committing to being grateful for all the good things in your life.
    88. Not having to wear make up.
    89. Getting in hours more of outdoor play every day (even as a family!)
    90. People generally being kinder and trying to help others in their community.
    91. Being able to have more one on one time with your kids.
    92. Kids being able to work in any position they feel comfortable in (standing, pacing, laying on the floor)
    93. Watching your children become more creative.
    94. Being able to witness your child’s firsts.
    95. Paying more attention to your health and wellness.
    96. Feeling a sense of togetherness and community since everyone is going through the same thing.
    97. The pride and joy parents are experiencing when they come up with a really great project to do with their kids.
    98. More people considering how their behaviors impact the lives of others.
    99. Appreciating the mess that your kids make because you have no where to go and aren’t as stressed.
    100. Developing a totally different outlook about how learning should look, sound, and feel.

    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:

    How to Continue Your Child’s Education During School Closures

    Covid-19: Tips for When School Is Closed

    30 Ideas to Get Your Kids Playing Outside

    100 Outdoor Activities to Do with Your Kids

    Top 10 Must Have Art Supplies

    Type of Play for Development

    Risky Play for Kids

    Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play

    Read More

  • How to Continue Your Child’s Education During School Closures

    You’ve got everything organized and ready for Monday. Pencils, paper, glue, erasers, maybe a protractor for good measure — all the implements of a proper education. You’ve put a great deal of thought into how best to organize your “classroom” and you have some lesson plans up your sleeve now that school is out for the foreseeable future.

    I applaud your efforts to fill the gap in your child’s education now that the coronavirus has upended your family’s normal routine.

    And I’m going to stop you right there.

    Because all your plans, though well-intentioned, are completely unnecessary.

    There’s no need to panic. Child development experts want you to know: You can make the transition to homeschooling quite adeptly by allowing your kids to lead. The best part? The responsibility for “educating” your child doesn’t fall solely on you. In fact, with a little preparation, following your child’s lead and sharing control of educational choices puts learning where it belongs — quite literally, in your child’s hands.

    Play is a child’s best education

    If you’re like a lot of parents right now, you may find yourself jumping both feet first into something you haven’t thought about much since, well — since you yourself were in school. And like a lot of parents who find themselves suddenly responsible for their child’s “formal education,” you may tend to fall back on what you know — that is, “school” as you remember (or imagine) it: children at desks and the teacher standing at the front of the class, drilling them with info on a chalkboard and some kind of pointer and glasses that tightly pinch her scrunched-up nose.

    This is what’s been called the “grammar of schooling,” and like the grammar of language, these are the “rules” that define our understanding of “school” even if we never give them much thought. Classroom teachers, to be sure, give a lot of their time to the arrangement of desks and lesson plans and standardized tests.

    Fortunately for you, your classroom isn’t restricted by four walls and your lesson plans are free and all around you as long as you keep in mind one very simple rule: Children learn best through play.

    Play: how memories are made

    Think about it. Your child hears the trills of the spring’s first toads and asks, “Mommy, what’s that?” Maybe you don’t know! You could scour the internet or a library for an answer, or you could take an option not always available to teachers with 30 kids in a classroom: You can learn by direct investigation, or, in other words, through play — by allowing kids the freedom to make choices and manipulate materials and find out for themselves the answers to important questions.

    It’s called play-based learning, and seasoned educators and parents alike know that it’s how a child learns best. With that in mind, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends these “five essentials to meaningful play” for those backyard investigations and field trips to the pond and other memory-making activities.

    1. Children make their own decisions.

      Allowing kids freedom to make their own choices (and mistakes!) is the heart of play-based learning. Parents and teachers can help by providing lots of open-ended materials for children to explore and get creative with. If you suddenly find yourself with a house full of kids on short notice, you can take comfort in the fact that the best and most widely available open-ended materials are also free and right outside your door. While a plastic toy rocket ship is often just a plastic toy rocket ship, the natural world provides infinite materials, from sticks to stones to pine cones, for children to discover and explore and use to make creative choices.

    2. Children are intrinsically motivated.

      Famed developmental psychologist Jean Piaget referred to play as the “work” that children do to make sense of their world. Kids have an internal guide — a natural impulse — to play as a form of discovery. Not sure how to satisfy restless children on short notice? Ask them what they’re curious about!

    3. Children become immersed in the moment.

      We remember the “good old days” of biking around our neighborhood and late evening baseball games in the backyard not because we’re simply victims of nostalgia but because we’re recalling the most formative memories from our childhood — memories solidified precisely because they were formed when, as children, we were immersed in our play and lost awareness of our surroundings and became focused completely on what we were doing. It is in that immersion that memories are formed — the kinds of memories that last a lifetime.

    4. Play is spontaneous, not scripted.

      Children are flexible in their play. Sometimes they’ll make a plan and stick to it; other times, their play will evolve as new information emerges. The “unknown” nature of play allows children to develop valuable life skills, both flexibility and persistence. Parents and teachers should certainly play cooperatively with children, but should resist the urge to make decisions for the child’s play. As children encounter challenges within their grasp, gentle guidance from a trusted adult (or “scaffolding”) can lead them to the next stage of their development.

    5. Play is enjoyable.

      What’s the difference between a visit to a swamp and completing a worksheet on frog habitats? The former is fun, the latter, less so. And that difference is all that matters to a child who is exploring her own world, because it’s this difference that determines whether a memory is relegated to the nether reaches of her brain and forgotten, or experienced as a novel — and therefore memorable — event.

    Whether you’re homeschooling by necessity or choice, or just interested in how you can keep children learning on weekends and summer breaks, now is the time for active, play-based learning, and that can come in many forms. Thank heaven you’re not restricted by state standards and testing requirements. When a child is making choices and doing something challenging, with the proper adult guidance and scaffolding, they’re learning. So make granola in the kitchen, learn to play dominoes, build a bridge, start that long-term project you don’t ever seem to have enough time for, and get outside for some all day recess!

    You don’t have to wait until Monday!


    Nell, Marcia L., & Drew, Walter F. Five Essentials to Meaningful Play.

    Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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  • Covid-19: 5 Tips For When School is Closed

    Covid-19 School Closures

    As Covid-19 spreads across the U.S., schools and businesses are beginning to shut down. Employers are asking for parents to work from home and schools are expecting children, at all grade levels, to continue learning at home.

    Many public school districts are nowhere near ready to provide adequate online or distance learning. That, in and of itself, is a serious issue considering it’s 2020. But that discussion is better left for another day.

    Right now, we are witnessing the biggest homeschooling social experiment the U.S. has seen since our country started compulsory schooling in the state of Massachusetts in 1852. 

    The hardship that parents will feel is going to be brutal. Our country is inadequately prepared to help already disadvantaged families who will bear the brunt of this pandemic. Schools are worried about closing because of the amount of homeless and food insecure children they serve. Districts are scrambling to find ways to continue providing basic necessities to children in their school community. That is sickening.

    Finding childcare when you have to work in order to get paid, is going to be near impossible. People are going to go to work sick because they can’t take time off–for lack of paid sick time. It’s going to be an utter ❤️ show.

    All this said, we must try to find the positive and continue to practice gratitude.

    We have parents who are now home with their kids and who have a unique opportunity to re-engage in their children’s education–Not a teacher? Have no clue how you can support your child in learning? Remember that YOU are where it all began. Take this time to re-connect.

    Learning doesn’t mean schooling. There are so many ways you can support your child at home. The most important thing is to step back and follow their lead and find a rhythm.

    Kids do thrive on predictability so try to think about how you can structure your day. You don’t have to be ridgid about it, but it might make life easier for everyone if you come up with a rhythm that keeps you moving forward.

    1. Ask them what excites them about school

    Is it art? Science? Reading? Gym? Start there.

    Pinterest up some art or science projects. Let them make their own creation with whatever art materials you have laying around. Watch what they create and build on it. Did they draw an animal? Find something to read about that animal.

    Did they create something abstract? Look up a Youtube video about abstract art.

    Let them come up with an experiment you guys can conduct at home. Talk about it. Have them write about it. Read about it.

    Do they love to read? Let them read. When they are done ask them questions. Have them draw the main character and write about the character’s personality. Look up graphic organizers for characterization, plot, theme (based on your child’s age) and you will find tons of activities for them to do relating to literacy. Read non-fiction. Check out Newsela for articles that allow you to customize by reading level. Do some research with them related to any content found in the article. Look at related pictures and talk through what you’re reading. Model engaging in content. Use phrases like “I wonder” and “What do you think….”

    Do they love physical education class? Do you have a backyard? Kick them outside for a few hours. Make an indoor obstacle course with couch pillows, step stools, boxes, painters tape. Get them doing something active. Have them shoot paper balls into a basket. Set up empty bottles as pinballs and let them do some house bowling. Do a workout together. Try yoga or pilates. There are tons of free videos online and you don’t need any real equipment.

    Are they budding mathematicians? Direct them to Khan Academy where they can do self-paced lessons online (just don’t let them sit online for hours on end).

    2. Involve them in your day to day

    You don’t have to do anything particularly academic if you don’t want to. You can simply involve them in your day to day. Talk to them about some of the tasks involved in being an adult (age appropriate of course).

    This is the perfect time for them to learn life skills. Have them help with laundry, or unload the dishwasher, or help fold clothes….let them make a grocery list and look up prices online. Give them a budget and see if they can add everything up and stay within that budget. Bake something from scratch and have them figure out converting measurements.

    Sit down and eat together. Drag out the meal to talk about the shape, size, color, texture or taste of different foods. Do a blind taste test or try out a new recipe and sample ingredients along the way.

    3. Get them outside

    Get. Them. Outside. Just not in public. Here is a list of 100 things to do outside with your kids  Some may not apply considering we should be trying to practice social distancing.

    4. Let them get bored

    Regardless of age, give your kid(s) time and space to be bored. Let them sulk. Let them complain. Give them encouragement to figure it out. Let them play, build, imagine, write, and create. Let THEM figure out how to spend their time with NO input from you. Figure out a particular time of day that works best for your family and keep it consistent.

    5. Keep screens to a minimum

    It might be VERY easy to let screens take over. Especially if you’re not used to limiting screen time in the afternoon when your child is home from school, or you’ve never had to because they are always in after school extracurriculars.

    Maybe your child has online school work to do. Or you’re having them do Khan academy math work. Maybe they are doing a coding app on an iPad. All fine. Just make sure you set limits and engage in these other activities that allow you to re-connect and re-engage in your child’s education in a meaningful way.

    Is your child’s school closed? How are you coping? What activities do you have planned to help pass the time? Head over to our Facebook group to chat with like-minded families.

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  • Opting Out of Standardized Testing

    Fighting Against Standardized Tests

    It’s spring! And that means daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, and, if you attend a public school, standardized testing. Across the country, in K – 12 public schools, students are being tested far more than is necessary or helpful. What can we as teachers and parents do about this phenomenon? Do we have the right to fight against testing?

    When Did This Start?

    Most public school teachers know the amount of time devoted to standardized tests. Since the 1920’s, when the SAT began, standardized testing has been a part of education. If it started modestly, the testing movement has certainly picked up a lot of steam since then.

    How Much Instructional Time is Wasted?

    In January or February most public-school staff meetings center around rules and protocols to prepare for upcoming standardized testing. Just-the-messenger, well-intentioned middle-level administrators impart information outlining how much time should be spent preparing for testing within the classroom. They suggest how to squeeze in test-prep questions throughout the day, and share links to practice assessments teachers are encouraged, if not directed, to use.

    Beyond practicing test items, there is a lot of time spent teaching students how to actually take a test. There are videos to watch, books to read, and scenarios to go through with students on the best ways to attack the variety of test questions contained within the assessment.

    By the time the actual tests are given, students have lost out on significant classroom instructional time getting ready for these assessments. It’s estimated that over two weeks of new instruction is sacrificed in order to prepare for standardized tests. Besides the actual time lost, many students are bored, downtrodden, and unmotivated as a result of all the test prep.

    What’s the Point?

    One would think the point of standardized testing would be to show teachers what students know and don’t know, and to give feedback on how the instructor should move forward.  Sounds nice, but that’s not the reality of the situation.

    Most standardized tests are administered very late in the year, making any feedback completely irrelevant to instruction. By the time test scores are returned to the school, the student has moved on to another grade with another teacher. Last year’s test scores are of little use to this new teacher.

    So who is benefiting from this testing? Students? Ummmm, no. Teachers? Absolutely not. Administrators? Nope. The tests now taking up hours of school time are definitely helping somebody, but not anyone within the school walls.

    Opting Out

    Some parents who have been reading research have decided they’ve had enough of standardized testing. They are saying, “No more!” But how exactly does it work when a parent tells the school their child will not be taking the test?

    In order to opt out of testing, the parent should send a letter to the school administrator, saying something to the effect of “I want you to know that my child ________________ will not be participating in the ___________ test this year. Please arrange for him to have a productive educational experience during the testing period.”

    What happens next? Good question. Does the student go to the library during the testing period? Does he or she stay home? Something in between? Don’t expect the principal to say, “Okay, thanks!” in response to your letter. Anticipate a reaction somewhere between desperation, outrage, and heartbreaking anxiety.

    The principal will likely reach out to you immediately and urge you to reconsider.  He or she may talk to you about the fact that, by keeping your child out of the testing process, you’re putting funding at risk, jeopardizing his or her chances at college, etc. Or not. He or she may also simply have you fill out a form stating your intentions and leave it at that.

    Will your child be in another room having a productive educational experience?  Most assuredly, NO. It’s likely that your child will be in another location in the school by him or herself, working on whatever he or she likes. There will be supervision, but it will probably be from a teacher next door who will occasionally peek in from her own classroom, not someone right there in the room.


    Are there consequences to opting your child out of testing? No. In most states, when parents opt their children out of testing, they’re committing an act of civil disobedience. Other than a guilt trip by the administration, the parent does not face any legal outcomes as a result of this decision. Parents may receive a strongly-worded letter, like this one from Minnesota (excerpt):

    “I understand that by signing this form my child will be marked as ‘not-proficient’ for the purpose of school and district accountability and waive the opportunity to receive a college-ready score that could save him/her time and money….in addition, opting out may impact the school, district, and state’s efforts to equitably distribute resources and support student learning.”

    Only California, Utah, and Wisconsin have state laws that allow parents to opt their children out of certain state tests. In a small number of other states and districts, local education agencies have indicated that they will respect parents’ wishes regarding opting their children out of tests.

    Where litigation has become a possibility in these situations, Meyer v Nebraska (1923) has been cited by lawyers representing parents in standardized testing situations, based on the notion that parents should be able to direct the upbringing of their children.

    As the truth about standardized testing spreads, the opting out movement grows. It is truly the only means of changing the broken system of standardized testing. Opting out immediately gets the attention of legislators and policymakers, who are still holding tight to the idea that standardized testing benefits students. In order to hold their attention and change the conversation, parents must simply say no. Opt out.

    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:

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  • How to Have Better Parent Teacher Conferences

    How to have better parent, teacher, student conferences

    It’s time for parent-teacher conferences! Teachers have been preparing, getting together test data, helping students with goal setting, and making sure their rooms are welcoming for families. How can you as a parent have the best experience possible for you and your child at conferences? I have been a public school teacher for 15 years in two different schools. I’ve also experienced my daughter’s own elementary conferences. I have seen what has worked (and things that didn’t) in my middle school classrooms. Use my experience to help you better parent, teacher, student conferences with these simple yet effective tips.

    Bring your child to conferences.

    It doesn’t matter if your child is in Pre-K or in their junior year of high school. Having your student attend conferences shows that you and their teacher are invested in their education. In addition, when your child participates in their conference, they are accountable for explaining their own strengths and opportunities for growth. Instead of speculating with the teacher why your student is struggling or just relying on qualitative data from test scores, you’ll get it right from the source. Your student can have a candid conversation with you and the teacher about how they can be successful in school. Ownership of their learning is so important even at an early age! I also love when parents can come and see the environment in which their child learns and grows. Often, your student may show you where they sit (if the conference is held in their classroom or classrooms), things they have created, and how they learn best!

    Schedule an appointment and arrive on time.

    Most schools optimize conference times by creating a schedule and sticking to it as close as possible. It’s OK to be a bit early in case the teacher is ahead of schedule. Elementary teachers typically have 10-15 minute slots that are private with each family. As your student enters middle and high school, you’ll most likely sign up for a 20-30 minute time slot to meet with teachers. If you can, briefly check in with each teacher. Even if your child isn’t struggling in a class, it’s important for them to be able to share their success and hear positive things from the classes they are shining in!

    Schedule more time if needed.

    There are times where you’re going to need more than 15 minutes to conference with a teacher. Also, there may be times that you need to problem solve without your child present. Set up a time to chat with the teacher on the phone or visit outside of conference. This may be before or after school or during the teacher’s plan period. Respect if the teacher would like an administrator, counselor, or another teacher (that works with your child) to be present. Remember, teachers, admin, and counselors are all there for the same reason: to help your child! We’re all on the same team.

    Prepare questions ahead of time.

    Every time I go to the doctor’s office, meet with a financial planner, or go to a conference, I always think of questions I meant to ask after I leave. Don’t let that happen to you. Come with a notebook or use digital reminders on Google Calendar or Google Keep to get alerts. These are perfect ways to remind you to ask the teacher questions about things happening in class, upcoming projects or assessments, or future class placements. You may also want to ask about things you can do at home to help your child either be challenged or improve in areas where they are struggling.

    Utilize technology before and after conferences.

    Most schools provide some type of online reporting system for parents to view grades and/or assignments (depending on grade level). Make sure you are checking in to see how your student is performing academically. Some teachers may use resources like SeeSaw or Google Classroom to post assignments. Check your email for other ways teachers may choose to communicate. For example, I love using Flipgrid to have students record videos to communicate and collaborate with each other and conference with parents.

    Reach out to your child’s teachers with major concerns or problems.

    Conferences are definitely a time for you to communicate with teachers about your child’s needs as well as celebrate their strengths and achievements. However, if you have major concerns over content being taught in the classroom, issues your student is having with other students (especially in secondary when many families are in the classroom or large room where conferences are held), communicate those concerns prior to your short meeting. It’s also challenging for a teacher to gather paperwork or information for special education or gifting testing during a short conference. Conversations like these can happen during conferences if the teacher is given fair warning to gather information.

    Make conferences about your child first.

    I absolutely love my kids’ parents, but sometimes that means we start chatting about non-school related things! That is not what the conference time is for. Resist the urge to talk about your other children, sports, or family vacations amongst other topics. It’s OK to have these relationship building conversations, but you don’t want to dominate the whole conference time while there are other families waiting. You also want to show your child that they are the #1 priority during the conference. Focus on them first and foremost. When it comes to parent, teacher, student conferences, the most important thing to remember is to be open and honest with the teacher, but know that you are both there for the same reason, the child sitting with you. Trust me. No teacher got into education just to have hours of parent, student, teacher conferences, but we do appreciate being able to problem solve with families and celebrate your child’s achievements and successes in and outside the classroom. Biography: Jen is a middle school public school teacher and PhD student in Omaha, Nebraska. She writes about education at Creative Tech Teacher.

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