What is a Smithsonian Early Explorer?

Recently SEEC and the National Museum of Natural History formed a new partnership. We are already lucky enough to have two spaces inside this amazing museum and now, we will be offering a very special program in NMNH’s Q?rius jr. Discovery Room. This brand new early learning initiative, Smithsonian Early Explorers (SEE), builds on SEEC’s 25 years of success combining the best in early learning practice and the rich environments of the Smithsonian Institution. A small cohort of young learners, together with their caregivers, will have access to the best of the Smithsonian Institution and a curriculum focused on STEAM: science, technology, engineering, art and math.

Here’s a small taste of what to expect.



Free Play

Learn More

Smithsonian Early Explorers FAQ’s
Cynthia Raso: rasoc@si.edu or 202-633-0121

Fountain Fun

DSCN3881Pools, beaches, lakes, sprinklers…it’s that time again! Children all over the US are enjoying summer-time to its fullest and likewise, parents are looking for water-inspired activities. Here in DC, we are lucky enough to have a number of public fountains that are both beautiful and refreshing. Fountains capture the imagination of children, so why not take this opportunity to create a learning experience?

Duckling FountainInfants
Infants often have mixed feelings about water, it can be both scary and exhilarating. Why not introduce them to water through their senses, especially sight, sound and touch. Simply draw their attention to different aspects of the fountain.

  • Do they hear that sound? Mimic the roar of the fountain.
  • Describe the color of the water.
  • Connect the fountain to the actual feeling of water by getting their hands wet.
  • At home, identify other places where you might find water and remind them of their visit to the fountain.


Toddlers are excited by new things and fountains are no exception. Take the time to explore the fountain and ask simple questions about its design:

  • What direction is the water moving?
  • Is there water that is still, where?
  • From where do you think the water is coming?
  • What else do you see besides water?
  • Do you see any pictures or decorations?
  • Try making your own fountain at home with a hose and baby pool.

Preschool and UpFirefly Fountains

By now your child has seen a few fountains and you can begin to investigate the concept further. Here are some fun multidisciplinary ideas:
  • Rainbows, light and water. This blog has some nice experiments you can easily duplicate.
  • Experiment with force and getting water to move in a certain direction. You can even perform this experiment at home if you are feeling adventurous.
  • Discuss why fountains are used: are they pretty, do they help us remember something, are they for cooling off, do people seem to like them?
  • Ask them to choose a location in your community and design their own fountain.

Favorite DC Fountains

Fountain at the Hirshhorn

Fountain at the Hirshhorn

  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
  • National Museum of American History (Constitution Ave. Entrance)
  • US Navy Memorial Plaza
  • National Gallery of Art
  • National Museum of the American Indian
  • Senate Fountain
  • WWII Memorial Rainbow Pool
  • Bartholdi Fountain
  • What is your favorite community fountain? Leave us a message!

    Ready Set Go

    As another school year comes to a close and we begin to say farewell to the many children who have spent the past 5 years or so with us, it’s hard not to wonder what’s ahead for them. Our educators tirelessly support SEEC students as we help them make sense of the world, love learning and grow into thoughtful young citizens. Over the course of this past year, a group of SEEC educators discussed what our students should be able to do when they leave SEEC.

    Critical thinking and analysis.

    Critical thinking and analysis.

    There’s quite a long list. A few of the things we agreed on were that our students should leave SEEC being able to solve problems, be responsible, take risks, understand their role in the community and their ability to affect change, have compassion, respect and empathy for others, and communicate their ideas.

    It’s a lot to ask a 5 year old if they know how to solve a problem or be responsible, because of course they will say, “yes.” We are, after all, working on having them leave SEEC with self confidence so a positive response is expected. Because I wanted to find out if our 5 year olds are entering Kindergarten as independent thinkers, I asked a few of them this more indirect question: “If I told you that five of your friends wanted you to climb up the Washington Monument so that you could jump off, what would you say?” One student gave me an odd look and responded, “That’s not really a good idea.” One student did say, “Yes.” We’ll hope that she has some clever ideas about how to do that safely. One student simply said, “Ouch,” while a few others were much too busy to want to elaborate and so responded with a “no.”

    Ability to share ideas.

    Ability to share ideas.

    The response, though, that reminds us that all these skills are intertwined and expands our notion of “independent thinking” was this – “Only if we could jump off like a cannonball and onto a big trampoline!” Of course, why didn’t I think of that?

    Here’s hoping that this playfulness, creativity, critical thinking and overall healthy outlook on the world that we have worked so hard to nurture is embraced by our elementary school colleagues and the world. Good luck, dear friends, as you now go and bravely pursue life.

    Self esteem and confidence.

    Self esteem and confidence.


    Caring in the Classroom

    Posted on behalf of SEEC teacher Carrie Heflin:

    Hello Fellow Champions,

    Whether you are a parent, grandparent, teacher, babysitter, or just an awesome person, you are reading this right now because you are a champion for the embattled cause close to all of our hearts- childhood. Day in and day out you find yourself concerned with nurturing the growth of another human being in a world that seems determined to fight you every step of the way. As a teacher preparing to enter my fourth year in a pre-k classroom, I just want to say that I know what you are feeling. I know that there are days when you feel utterly and completely defeated.

    This is how I was beginning to feel every time I, as a classroom educator, had to mediate a forced apology between two or more of my students. Do you know what I mean by a forced apology? It’s what happens when Johnny knocks over little Suzie’s carefully-constructed block castle with his super-laser-rocket-robot feet and she yells, “Hey!” and shoves him into Tommy who falls and bumps his head. So AngryAt this point, all three children are crying and screaming for justice and you get to take on the coveted role of apology-enforcer. Wrong has been done and the only way to make it right is to frog-march Johnny over to Suzie and coerce him into mumbling, “Sorry I broke your castle,” with liberal amounts of eye rolling. At which point Suzie must chime in with a completely unrepentant, “Sorry I pushed you,” and you are so tired from the twenty emotionally-trying minutes spent wringing these two “heartfelt” apologies out of Suzie and Johnny that Tommy, the innocent victim, has to make do with a back pat and you saying, “Sorry you got knocked over,” as you make your way away from the ticking time bomb that is Johnny and Suzie (who are both still angry at each other and currently plotting their revenge).

    After three years of these incidents, I was beginning to lose hope. I had spent countless hours stewing about my inability to create an effective apology scenario in my classroom. I had tried every way I could to talk to my students through their disagreements in a way that would make them see the situation in a rational way, but the fact of the matter is that once a problem is already happening, both parties are too emotional to see reason. My co-teacher and I had done our research and we knew the problem. We were trying to force empathy on people who just hadn’t developed it yet. All the experts agreed. The children with whom we work are just too young to possess a developed sense of empathy. I suppose we could have just accepted that fact and moved on with business as usual, but the issue still rankled both of us. We knew that in today’s zero-tolerance-for-“violence” world, we were doing our children a disservice by continuing the forced apology routine. What was it teaching them? Did they really understand that hitting was wrong or did they just continue hitting with the understanding that a couple words makes it all better and then you can go back and do it again the next time you’re upset?

    So we put our heads together and decided that we needed to make some changes. We knew that it wasn’t practical to expect our students to develop empathy overnight or to make them want to apologize just by using different words. The change had to be big. We wanted to do something that would help make our students more aware of the needs and feelings of others. That way, they might consider those needs and feelings more within the context of the choices they make. The result of this epiphany was a unit that we began in February and continued singularly for about a month and a half. The theme of the unit was, Heroism.

    The foundation for the progression of our lesson plans was psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project. This is an initiative, created and implemented by Zimbardo, that claims it is possible to teach and learn heroism. There are three basic phases: 1) define heroism 2) explore examples of heroism and its obstacles 3) practice heroism in your daily life.

    We used these principles in our lessons by first focusing on defining heroism (we talked about the difference between heroes and superheroes, the difference between being kind and being heroic, people who we think are heroes). Next we looked at some real life heroes. We visited exhibits featuring Nelson Mandela and Gandhi and brought police officers and EMT’s into the classroom to talk to the children. And we talked a lot about how it is often hard for heroes to be heroic, but they choose to do it anyway. When we talked about Mandela and Gandhi we looked at how hard it was for them to stand up against the governments with whom they disagreed. The kids were amazed that they were willing to give up their personal freedom to change something that wasn’t right.

    The final step was practicing heroism in our own lives which we accomplished through a series of service learning projects. We wanted to make sure that all of the projects we undertook were actually heroic (as heroic as is possible in a pre-k classroom) rather than just kind, so we made sure there was an element of choice and sacrifice for the children in each task. One day we asked another class to leave for the playground without cleaning up their classroom. We told our class that they had to leave in a hurry and didn’t have time to clean. We showed them on a timer that they had 30 minutes of play time before lunch and that they could either stay in our room and play or use some of that time to go clean up the other classroom. Three quarters of the class went and cleaned the other classroom and they received individual thank-you notes from the other class. The rest of my students really regretted not going to help and the next time we had a project they were ready and willing to participate.

    Protesting.The next project involved giving back to the greater DC community. We did a lesson one day on a painting in the National Gallery of Art that tells the story of the Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath. In the story, Elijah is traveling through the town where the widow and her son live. He comes across mother and son and asks them if they have any food to spare a weary traveler. Even though she knows what it will mean for her and her child, the widow uses the last of her food supplies to make Elijah a loaf of bread. In return, Elijah blesses the widow with enough food to feed her and her son for the rest of their lives. My class struggled a lot with the context of this story. “Why didn’t she go to the store and get more bread,” they asked.
    -Because she didn’t have any money with which to buy more food.
    -“Why didn’t she go get money from her bank?”
    -Because the bank doesn’t give you money for free. You have to put your money in and they hold onto it until you need it. She didn’t have any money to put in the bank. A lot of people don’t have any money to put in the bank.
    -“How do they get food?”
    -They don’t.

    It was a hard lesson to hear and a hard lesson for me to teach. Afterward, my co-teacher and I knew it was time for our next project. The following week we told the kids that there was a special place in DC called Martha’s Table where you could take food for people who can’t afford to buy their own. “We have lots of food in our kitchen at my house,” one girl said. “I’ll bring some to school and we can send it to the Martha’s Table.” It was a sweet offer, but it didn’t require any heroic action on the part of our students and it didn’t teach them anything other than how to ask their parents for food- which was always available to them. So we told them to go ahead and bring some food from home to flesh out our donation and then we put our grand plan to a class vote. We told them that what we really wanted to do was to make sandwiches to take to Martha’s Table and that we wanted to use the sliced bread that was going to be delivered as a side dish for the children’s lunch the next day. The vote was unanimous. We used all of the bread that was delivered the next morning, made 30 sandwiches, loaded them in a wagon along with 50 additional pounds of food and took them on the metro to hand-deliver them to Martha’s Table. The kids were so proud of their work and I was so proud of their choice to take food that was meant for them and give it to someone who needed it more.Marthas Table

    We got an overwhelming amount of positive feedback on the Martha’s Table project from the parents of our students. They told us how their kids talked about the project at home, how it really resonated with conversations about privilege that they had struggled to have with their children, and how grateful they were that we had taken the time to teach this important lesson. Heartened by these results, our class forged ahead with new projects. We were inspired by an elementary school class whose story we found online. They started a “Kindness Club” to send cards to people who were ill, hurt, suffering a loss, etc… Our first batch of cards went to the Children’s Hospital. The second batch was hand-delivered to the security staff in our building. After that, the students began bringing in their own requests. A cousin with a broken leg, a grandpa with a hurt shoulder, and a grandma recovering from surgery have all received cards so far. Sunshine Cards

    Needless to say, things have changed in my classroom a little in the past few months. The kids are still kids. They have ego-centric disagreements and sometimes they get physical instead of using their words. What has changed is my response to these circumstances. When a child comes up to me screaming, “Miss Carrie she hit me,” I smile and turn to the offending party and say, “What would a hero do?” This one tiny question stops my students in their tracks. The other day I said it to a little girl who answered, “but I’m not a hero,” to which I responded, “but you could be.”

    A Happy Teacher

    Summer Fun: Building Collections with Your Child

    If you have a child in elementary school, they have probably come home with some sort of summer packet. I’ve seen the “packet” take various forms: from a list of innovative ways to encourage reading to a dull packet of worksheets. Either way, parents and educators alike want to encourage learning outside of school and during a time that has been characterized as the “summer slide.”  I hope some of the ideas on how to build a collection will inspire your family to engage in playful learning this summer. Adjust as you see fit for age and your schedule.
    1. Choose a topic in which your child is interested and then find a space in your home where you can place a table and don’t mind hanging things on the wall.
    2. Begin building your collection by visiting your local library and selecting several books.
    3. Find other toys and household items that you don’t mind donating tohousehold objects the cause.
    4. Use these items in a way that they can explore them with their senses, i.e. what does the flower smell like or what sound do seeds make in a bottle. Also allow them to manipulate the toys or objects so they are using they are able to discover how things work and practice their fine motor skills.
    5. Flower PartsBuild a model, draw pictures and display.
    6. Add vocabulary words.
    7. Take it outside of the home and “experience” the topic, i.e. pick flowers or keep a journal of flowers you see during your day.
    8. Looking at flowersTake to the community and visit a museum, local store, etc. Take pictures and post in the collection area.

    Helpful Hints

    • Collect, create and display together!
    • Keep the collection at their height.
    • When they are ready, change it up or expand on the topic, i.e. flowers – gardening – water cycle.
    • Let them come and go on their own and edit along the way.
    • Have fun!




    5 Things I Learned About Art From Children

    For the past year and a half, SEEC has worked with the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Lifelong Learning Group on a project designed to positively impact the educational experience of young children and their families through the arts. As we collaborated with the Memphis based museum educators, docents and early childhood teachers to create meaningful interdisciplinary classroom and museum based hands-on activities, we found that each of us learned more than we imagined possible at the start of the project. The following post presents one great unexpected example of the project’s impact.

    Thanks to the partnership with the Brooks Museum of Art, the following is posted on behalf of docent Cheryl Caldwell: Docent Leading Group

    5 Things I Learned About Art From Children

    Art is so much more than just art: It can be science, culture, motion, and history, as well as color, line, and shape. Young children naturally think like artists, and their imagination is at its peak during their early development as students. Yet educators struggle with ways to develop and instill creative and critical thinking skills—crucial tools that this generation needs to utilize their creative impulses in educational and civic pursuits. As a docent at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, I work in conjunction with the Smithsonian Early Enrichment program, engaging Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten children from Title 1 schools, where 40 percent or more of the students enrolled are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

    Equipped with my knowledge from the six-month docent training course, I teach these children about visual art in a museum setting. As a new docent, I am excited to introduce children to a museum and see that they fully experience all it has to offer. At the Brooks, children have the opportunity to see, touch, and feel the materials an artist might have used in creating a piece. Engaging these children in this setting while they are young takes the fear out of the museum experience and brings out the fun. Of course, the kids aren’t the only ones gaining from this experience.

    Here are the top five things I’ve learned during my first year as a Brooks Museum docent:

    ▪ Get down low and look up at the artwork through the eyes of a child. This perspective might just give you new insight on a piece of art you thought you knew all about.
    ▪ Art inspires critical thinking rather than getting the right answer
    ▪ The smiles and enthusiasm are contagious.
    ▪ You won’t know everything, but you will probably learn something new with every tour.
    ▪ Children are far smarter and more creative than we give them credit for. You will often be amazed at how much they can offer if you take the time to watch and listen.

    Participating families gathered in the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

    Participating families gathered in the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

    Saturdays with SEEC Teachers

    Posted on behalf of SEEC two year old teacher Javasa Finney:

    Javasa at the Hirshhorn with SEEC's two year old class.

    Javasa at the Hirshhorn with SEEC’s two year old class.

    This spring I decided to volunteer with the museum education team at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC) to help out with the weekend family workshops. I currently teach in one of the two year old classesthere and was interested in seeing how the experience changes once parents are involved, in the classroom and museum visit.

    During the workshops I worked with the infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. The theme for the infants/toddlers was “Tiny Gardeners” and in these classes the children had the opportunity to explore flowers and gardens. The theme for the older toddlers and two year olds was, “Where Does it Come From” which focused on exploring different foods and the origins of food. Every week we met at the Natural History Museum and then headed to the museum where we would find out the topic for the day by focusing on a particular object, exhibit or art work. _MG_4180After our visits, we headed back to the SEEC classrooms for some hands-on activities related to our topic of the day. Time in the classroom was spent, planting, cooking, painting, reading, singing, and additional play. It was also wonderful to see the children socializing and making new friends.

    In the museum the children did a fantastic job. They all seemed very curious and ready to explore. Everyone was respectful of the exhibits and stayed together as a group. We were often even able to sit down together to share a story and hands-on objects while we were inside the museum. Everyone seemed captivated and engaged. During our trips we visited exhibits that were directly related to what our topic for that day was. Some of the museums we visited during the four weeks include the American History Museum, Freer Gallery, the Botanic Gardens and National Gallery of Art.

    As I reflect upon my time in the family workshops, I have many great memories. It was great to see the children so involved at the end of the session that they didn’t want to leave. Since several of our families return from one session to the next, I imagine that they are also finding the experiences together both meaningful and memorable as well. Museums have so much to offer, they are inspiring and educating. They are great for introducing new topics or re-enforcing facts. The most wonderful thing I saw during my time volunteering at the family workshops was the parents and children bonding, learning, and discovering new things together at the museum. What a wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning!_MG_4086 SEEC’s infant, toddler and pre-k Family Workshops will start up again in the fall. We hope to see you there!

    photo (6)

    A Playful Experiment

    This past week I had the chance to attend one of SEEC’s seminars: Play: Engaging Learners in Object Rich Environments. During the two days, we explored the meaning of play and how to use it when teaching about objects. We began the seminar by defining play as a group. photo (5)Some of the key words were: fun, tools, free thought, child directed, social/emotional, intellectual. To help us articulate the discussion, we also read Museum Superheroes: The Role of Play in Yong Children’s Lives by Pamela Krakowski, which distinguishes play as:

    active engagement, intrinsic motivation, attention to process rather than the ends, nonliteral (symbolic behavior) and freedom from external rules.1

    I reflected on these concepts and how they related to the open-ended discussions I was leading in the galleries with 4-6 year-olds. It occurred to me that there were several strong ties between play and these gallery conversations.  My process begins with a set of questions that I carefully craft based around the lesson, are mostly open-ended, and/or encourage careful looking.

    Asher Brown Durand  The Stranded Ship 1844 oil on canvas National Gallery of Art Gift of Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation through Millennium Funds 2003.71.1

    Asher Brown Durand The Stranded Ship, 1844 National Gallery of Art, Gift of Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation through Millennium Funds, 2003.71.Once in front of the object, I begin by posing the first question. I am careful to use these questions as prompts and listen carefully to responses. Eventually the children take over and the conversation is being driven by them.

    For example, I was recently looking this Durand painting with a group of children and I asked them to find the sun. One l girl pointed it out and said:

    The sun is always moving through the sky.

    I took this opportunity to ask the rest of the class whether they had ever noticed the sun moving through the sky. They immediately offered their own examples. And right there, at the museum, we stood up and pretended to be the earth by slowly rotating our bodies. As we moved, I explained the rotation of the earth in relation to the sun. This was a completely unexpected and child-initiated moment.

    When the moment was right, I referred back to my questions to re-engage with the painting. Looking back on the lesson, I wish I had asked some more imaginative questions like, “What do you think happened to this boat? “ This would have been a chance for the children to engage their imagination and build their own meaning. I have done this with other lessons and this technique definitely gets their creative juices flowing. What I also noticed was that, like play, it promotes social skills. During this playful storytelling, children are required to take turns and listen to each other. Moreover, the children will sometimes build upon each other’s ideas or even, contradict them. They are essentially building skills that will later help them to collaborate and appropriately challenge their peers.

    I continued to be inspired by the two-day workshop and especially, a session provided by Discovery Theater. This session was, as one would expect, more theater driven and helped me challenge myself by incorporating more symbolic play in my museum visits. So when I asked the children to identify parts of the Durand painting, I added secondary questions that would enliven the discussion. For example, when the ocean was observed, I asked them to show me with their bodies how the ocean was moving and then I asked them to make the sound of the waves.  The kids were happy to illustrate both for me so when it came time to talk about the clouds and wind, we added sound effects and movements again.  These exercises captured the essence of the painting, encouraged different learning styles and made everything more fun.

    As the last part of the object lesson, I laid out several objects and photo 2 (3)asked them to work together to recreate the painting. They needed no instruction, but went right to work, collaborating until the composition was completed. Was it exactly like the painting, no, but they had used these tools to create their OWN composition. They were quite proud and were completely engaged in the activity. I saw them looking back at the painting, rearranging objects and making their own decisions.

    All in all, the visit felt playful and the kids were not restless at all. I am continuing to think about how to make my lessons more playful and how play can be a tool for learning, especially within the museum environment.  If you have any ideas, please share!!!!

    1. Journal of Museum Education, Volume 37, number 1, Spring 2012, pp. 49-58.

    Moments of Joy

    When I looked out the window of my apartment this morning and saw that there was a torrential downpour occurring just as I was about to walk to the Metro I decided there were two ways I could approach the situation. Approach 1–I could leave feeling annoyed that I would have to walk in the rain and wishing that I could just stay home curled up on my couch.  Approach 2–I could leave with the excitement of a child in a rain storm. I chose approach 2 and decided to spend the walk being excited about the fact that I was getting to carry a “brella” (as the toddlers at my school call them) and to walk right through every big puddle in my rain boots rather than carefully walking around them. While this might sound crazy to you it actually made my walk much more fun. I found myself looking for puddles and I noticed the drips coming off the edge of the umbrella. I felt that same thrill of discovery that I remembered from being a kid when I turned the corner to walk down the small hill and saw a mini rushing river running along the curb and then I splashed my way right through it. I listened to the sound of the rain pounding on the top of the umbrella and noticed that the birds were all still singing right through the rain. Walking to the Metro became an adventure rather than a chore. Walking to the Metro became an experience rather than something to simply get over with.


    The rain today has reminded me that as adults we too often get bogged down in the negativity of real life. This being an adult thing that looked so good to us as kids can, in reality, be draining and overwhelming. It is so easy to just slog through life and to see things like pouring rain as negatives rather than as experiences. It reminded me that the reason children delight in things like walking in the rain is that they see them as an experience and have no preconceived notions of what that experience will be like–it is just another of life’s adventures. It reminded me that attitude is everything–the experience becomes what you think it will be in so many cases.

    Here at SEEC I get to watch teachers curate experiences that create life adventures for children every day. I see the joy at the little things all day long. I hear the exclamations of “It’s a parade!” from the twos class when they look at the window and see what in reality is just a huge group of middle school students coming to the museum. I have conversations like the one with three-year-old Charlie when he tells me “I REALLY love school.” I see the joy in watching the classroom caterpillars suddenly become butterflies and in seeing stalagmites at the gem hall and watching them grow on a video on the tablet. I see the kindness as four-year-olds identify and take photos of how their friends are really superheroes because of their kind acts toward others. I see the excitement as a classroom heads to a museum, yelling “GOODBYE!!” at the top of their lungs to me as they walk by my office. I live in moments of joy every day but that joy can be too easily forgotten in my own life.

    At our school this year we are making a conscious effort to appreciate these little moments of joy. Every classroom and every admin office has a jar labeled “Moments of Joy” where we collect stories of those moments that make up a day for a child. I believe it helps keep us focused on the wonder. And I discover that when I am feeling stressed actively watching for a story to add to my jar gives my day a whole new focus. Life can be hard and overwhelming some days and it isn’t possible to always see the joy—some days just really stink. But if we all truly tried harder to say nice things to each other, to approach as many experiences as possible with a positive outlook, and to look for the joy and wonder in our days the world just might be less hard and overwhelming for all of us. Go walk in the rain and look for that mini river flowing along the curb to splash in.

    It’s All About the Relationship

    Relationships are at the heart of everything we do at SEEC—relationships with parents, with each other as educators, and, most importantly, with the children. Forming strong relationships with children is the most important thing we can do as adults. It is through these relationships that much of who a child comes to be will emerge. Let’s start with a short biology lesson about the brain. Your brain has three parts—the rational brain, the mammalian brain and the reptilian brain. The reptilian brain is the oldest part of the brain and the part that is most developed at birth. This is where body functions such as sneezing, coughing, breathing and instincts are controlled. The mammalian brain is where emotions live—fear, anger, joy, sadness. The rational brain is the part that most of us associate with the brain—the thinking part. At birth, and throughout much of childhood, the rational brain is still developing. This means that instinct and emotions arising from the other two parts of the brain often take over behavior—think tantrums and biting here. It is only through relationships, coupled with experiences, that these vital connections in the rational brain are formed, resulting in a child who grows up with the ability to cope with stress, form fulfilling relationships of their own, manage anger, feel kindness and compassion, have the will and motivation to reach for and achieve goals, and have the ability to love intimately.


    Many of the things we do here in our infant classrooms (and we have some pretty amazing infant teachers here!) are things that not only should be happening in every infant classroom but with babies and toddlers everywhere.

    * Take their distress seriously: because of the way the brain of a very young child works they feel emotions strongly and need to be not only allowed to experience them but learn to name them and understand how to cope with them. A child who is upset should be held and comforted and allowed to be sad while the adult talks about what he or she might be feeling.

    * Support yourself as the adult: it takes a lot of energy and patience to help support a child as she grows. This ability to override the emotional part of the brain doesn’t develop quickly. In fact, it may be the mid-20s before the rational brain fully kicks in (this may be why that first love is something you remember so clearly….). Because of this, being with young children all day can be exhausting so adults need to give themselves permission to step away from the child or the situation and find ways to recharge themselves throughout the day.

    * Physically soothe young children: touch, rocking, massage and hugs all release oxytocin and opiods in the brain. These chemicals, sometimes called the “love chemicals” are the ones that make you feel calm and safe. Their production also reduces stress hormones in the body. Touch is a vital part of a strong relationship with a child.

    *Experience real joy with them: when was the last time you felt real, true, in your gut joy? Young children experience it all the time and at the tiniest things. Finding a bug on the sidewalk, seeing an airplane in the sky, playing with bubbles—these all bring real joy to young children. It is important that you share that joy with them through the excitement in your voice, the words you use, and by giving them your complete attention. Sharing true moments of joy is a great way to build a relationship.

    * Provide lots of face to face, 1:1 interactions: while we all interact with our children on a regular basis, we are often doing it with all sorts of distractions in the background. Forming real relationships means having face to face interactions on a regular basis, ones where we are really paying attention.

    * Allow for clinging: someone once said that being with a toddler is like being possessed by a demonic lover. Clinging, while annoying, is an important way for children to calm themselves when they are stressed (and sometimes for adults as well!). Those love chemicals get released with the physical contact from clinging and can help a child feel more calm and safe. This is probably why you also want a good hug when you are feeling stressed!

    * Let your child lead: let the child choose what to do and what parts he wants you to play. The more you let the child lead the play, the stronger the relationship gets as the child feels respected, trusted and cared for.

    Building strong relationships with children takes time and patience. Strong relationships formed early in life will serve as an anchor for a child even when they are floundering out there in the world later in life. Knowing in their hearts that they are truly cared for will always be with them and is the best gift you can give them for a life time of love.

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