Monday, January 8, 2018

Stories to Teach about Life

 “Yes!” I thought, reading Peter Gray’s blog post about the importance of stories for young children. My mind traveled back to all of the stories I have read, and acted out with, young children over the course of my career. Dr. Gray focused specifically on reading to children; how this act has been singled out, with good reason, to be more important to the future education of children than most others. His excellent point is that there is more to story reading than cuddles and close relationships, though these are essential for human growth and development, not to mention human joy!
“Knowing how to deal with evil as well as love, how to recognize others’ desires and needs, how to behave towards others so as to retain their friendship, and how to earn the respect of the larger society are among the most important skills we all must develop for a life.”  These skills are actually something we learn all through life, but giving children stories to reflect on gives them a huge advantage, psychologically, as an early start on braving human relationships, and fostering skillful interactions. Dare I say, also, that stories help children learn to be wise rather than right, as in, “right, not wrong”?

One book that, surprisingly, became a favorite with a group of pre-k students, and demonstrated the difference between wisdom and “might makes right”, was The Cloud Spinner, by Michael Catchpool and Alison Jay. This entrancing story starts out, “There was once a boy who could weave cloth from the clouds”. The boy sings as he works: “Enough is enough and not one stitch more”. Immediately, Alison Jay’s illustrations captivated our children. The hills and houses reflect the moods of the characters. Our children noticed this before I did! Smiles on hills are made of trees, and sheep. Houses smile with windows and doors. In the beginning, nature is in harmony because the boy with his magical loom only makes what he needs. One day, the king notices the boy in a crowd and madly desires clothing, of both himself and his family, made of the clouds. He commands the boy to weave for him. The boy balks at first: “It would not be wise to have (so much fabric) made from this cloth. Your majesty does not need it.” The king is apoplectic, commanding the boy do his bidding. So he does. He weaves, and the illustrations reflect the sadness of the task with darkening color and forlorn hills.

The Cloud Spinner does not so much have a cheerful ending as a wise and uplifting one. The children, absorbed in it, noticing details of the varying shades of color that reflect the boy’s, and the King’s daughter’s moods (She helps him to reverse the tragic disappearance of clouds that cause drought, and discontent among the people). The King and his family are astounded by the gratitude of the people after the clothing he ordered is turned back into clouds, causing welcome rain. The boy and princess exult in the restoration of a wise order in nature and among humans. The children, sitting before me, sigh in contentment.

Our preschoolers learned about what greed was, some demonstrating it by acting out the concept—“Mine! Mine!”, with gestures of raking in loot! A teacher took up the phrase, “Enough is enough and not one ____ more” when children wanted ALL the blocks, or pizza. And, amazingly, this story was one of the most requested during reading time, rivaling Dragons Love Tacos!
If children have a deep interest in this or any other story, it is wise to follow their direction and see what they do with it. Our children drew and painted clouds in an array of colors, and told stories with greedy characters and children with magical powers. If you teach to standards, these activities can be used to fulfill them—Language arts, social studies, even math and science. Arts standards go without saying, and the text of the song can be set to music. Ask any child! They will have a tune before you know it!

Children do need stories to make sense of feelings and wise social interaction. They need myth, I dare say, to hold on to the important values of society. As human interaction and social relationships are varied, so, too, are the stories we read and tell.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The circle of play

After weeks preparing for an arts experience by discussing Matisse and Picasso, and by drawing or cutting out shapes, it was time for my small group of eight to put together a “product”. This would be our contribution to the school’s fund raising auction.

The children and I met around paper on a large table. I asked each child to choose a shape from the bag of shapes they had cut, and to place "their" shape on the paper. Then the negotiations began. My job, as teacher/facilitator, was to have the children think as a group, to let go of their attachment to their own shapes, and make some difficult group decisions about where the shapes should go to make a more pleasing (to the group) picture. I made changes and asked for a vote. I asked individuals to make suggestions for improvements. It was a very enjoyable group effort, one that pleased each child and myself. In the process some of the children caught on that using white space as part of the picture was an artistic choice, and not just for background. There were also lively and constructive discussions!

Arts integration means integrating both the formal ideas and ideals of arts disciplines with the ideas and ideals of language, history, mathematics, engineering, and science. Because the arts are integrative in themselves, they entice and seduce our children into learning.   During my own research for this work, I discovered (teacher, teach thyself!) that the word shape can be categorized as either geometric (that which we teach young children to the point of obsession), or biomorphic (shapes children see effortlessly, through their curiosity in exploring their world. These are the shapes of nature, and include the human body). We explored these shapes through the work of Matisse.

All process is a function of play.  All humans play with materials, with ideas, with words. Play is the precursor to invention, to innovation. In early childhood, some play-based programs have it half right. Their children learn through play, yes. But adults are often just furniture around which to play, or people who only talk to each other while they “watch” children. Adults should play a role, in school, to safeguard and encourage process, and they are instrumental in reminding children of their most deeply held interests when distractions prevail. If a child invents something, ruminates over it, takes time and energy all alone, that is a play/process/learning experience. When a group decides to make a trampoline out of old rubber mats and tires, it is a model of group invention and innovation. This is process, but the children rejoice in the product as well.

Using documentation (pictures, anecdotes, videos, of the children's process) makes their learning visible, as they say in Reggio. It allows children to see where they have been. There is nothing more interesting and, dare I say, entertaining than to listen in on children's conversations as they view their own art or photographs! Teachers of young children need the insight they receive from children's own mouths to proceed in their work.

Now perhaps my children would have made a totally different range of pictures, inspired by the book, Henri's Scissors, which we read, had I just let them go at it. And I believe that some wonderful works of art would have been the result. In this case, this teacher didn't want to leave this to chance, considering her deadline. All in all, it worked out, and we have all of that colored paper for more art for the children.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Visual art as play: Integrating the arts into the curriculum.

We read When Pigasso Met Mootisse, by Nina Laden, again this year. Each class responds with intense interest and curiosity when I read this story to them. No one is indifferent! But this year, I continued with actual stories about the artists lives. I read, Henri's Scissors, by Jeannette Winter, and Just Behave, Picasso!, by Jonah Winter, and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. These two books were labeled ages eight and up, so I was risking inattention and much silly behavior by reading them to a group of sixteen fours!

I was surprised and happy by their response to each book. The first book is a very true story about Matisse's shift to paper cutouts as his art. The theme included his old age and death. When I got to that part of the story there was a reverent hush among the children. "He died?", was a question. "Yes", I answered. "He was very old...", was one comment. The illustrator shows Matisse cutting out the stars in heaven, and the children accepted this premise.

The Picasso book emphasizes the wide expansiveness of self-expression in art, and how Picasso changed his art as his need to express himself changed. The children were mesmerized by the idea that, even though people said Picasso should "behave", he didn't.  One boy said, "Your art is for you! Nobody else can tell you how to do your art". That was the meaning of the book for him. Others were interested in finding the representational meaning of cubist paintings.

The children have begun following their muses, now. Some are drawing with "shapes", their take on cubism. Others are cutting paper and gluing it down. Because we need a school auction project, we will see where this takes us. I have materials at the ready! My take away from this experience is that even preschool children are grabbed by "big ideas". I forget sometimes. Never underestimate their ability to absorb meaning from their reading. Nothing I did during these readings and activities were "cute". They didn't need to be.

Here are a few pictures of preliminary experimentation before the auction project begins...

"Shape drawing"

Cutting shapes for bigger work

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Professional Development for Teachers

I don't usually advertise myself, but it seems that if one wants to continue to offer exciting, creative presentations for other teachers, one needs to toot one's own horn! 

My Horn

I have two dynamite workshops that have had rave reviews (really!). One is:

Engaging Curriculum: The Indoor and Outdoor Classroom 

The other is:

Music Every Day

Here are some of the nice things teachers said about the first workshop:

"I loved this class. I left with lots of notes. This class left me full of ideas."
"I really loved all of the info on outdoor learning and anything that Gail Multop does!" 

I swear I did not make this up.

Here are some nice things teachers said about the second workshop:

"It was fabulous! She gave me so many ideas to incorporate music into the class." 
"Love Ms. Gail and her workshop!! Highly passionate about what she does!"

I didn't make this up, either.

Please contact me for more information about training and workshops. Email me at 


Saturday, April 16, 2016

“It’s necessary that we believe that the child is very intelligent, that the child is strong and beautiful and has very ambitious desires and requests. This is the image of the child that we need to hold. Those who have the image of the child as fragile, incomplete, weak, made of glass gain something from this belief  only for themselves. We don’t need that as an image of children. Instead of always giving children protection, we need to give them the recognition of their rights and of their strengths.” Loris Malaguzzi.

Having worked in a Reggio-inspired program for four years, I endeavor to hold this idea in my mind as I teach young children, and as I teach adults. Young children are amazingly capable. They can learn anything at their level of development and as members of a larger culture. By providing support for what they are capable of, we honor their essential natures.

Recently, I have been thinking about DAP. What does developmentally appropriate practice mean to each of us? I think that, in spite of NAEYC’s very positive and specific guidance for us as Early Childhood Educators, schools and parents who want to honor DAP have differing images of children in their minds. I see so much that is good in the practices of my adult students, and among my ECE colleagues, but also I sense that many of us still tend to see young children as individuals who need protection, nurture, and dare I say, sheltering. The image Loris Malaguzzi presents in the quote above certainly contradicts this image.

In the NAEYC literature, 12 Principles of Development and Learning, the eleventh principle, “Development and learning are advanced when children are challenged” strikes me as particularly important. From self-help skills (pouring water, and counting out crackers at snack, to pulling up their own pants, with appropriate scaffolding) to project work (planning and creating a part of a project a child sees as needed, each contribution demonstrating not only skills, but ideas as well), young children are vastly more capable than we habitually see them. Perhaps, as Malaguzzi implies, we want to see them as needing more help, so that we can fulfil our own need to nurture (full-disclosure: sometimes guilty myself!). But we do not give them our best if we do things they can do themselves. Neither should we over-protect them.

Do you allow preschoolers shovels that actually dig a hole in dirt? Do you encourage them to climb trees, and hang upside down (yes, with an adult under them—licensing rules must apply after all)? Are they feeding and handling class lizards, or doing meaningful jobs (stacking chairs, sharpening colored pencils, sorting toys)? Are each of these activities enveloped in secure relationships with knowledgeable caregivers who are just as interested in what the children want to do as they are?

Here we have the path to a developmentally appropriate practice that allows children to go as far as they can because they want to; because they hold their caregivers’ esteem in high regard. No, “good job”, or star chart can make up for a lack of genuine involvement by adults and older children in what is important to young ones.

What inspired this blog post was a video of a three year old girl birthing a lamb. You may have seen it. If not, I hope you will be as inspired as I was. As you watch, consider how the adult (perhaps mother) holds back from diving in to take over, and uses questions and encouragement to allow this child to complete her work. The sense of capability, accomplishment, and self-respect she must have felt dwarfs anything that has come from a teacher saying, “good job” to a piece of artwork. Please take a look, and let me know what your response is.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Outdoor play and learning: Is this hard to understand?

Outdoor play is gaining popularity in direct proportion, it seems, to the rate of reduction of recess in schools. Those of us who played outside as children see the disappearance of nature play as abhorrent. I don’t need to cite all of the research that states that children need nature, and outdoor play as much as they need food, water, and sleep, but I want to explain my own view about such an important factor of working and playing with young children.

Playing in dirt calms children down. In my own experience, there is no better cure for restless young children than taking them outdoors, either to play in the mud, digging and creating streams with water, or to look for worms to populate a new garden. I have seen children put a bug on a leaf in water and watch it float on its own “boat”. Children make homes and playgrounds for worms and ask probing questions about their lives. If an unexpected nature event happens, such as the baby mole finding its way onto our playground, they are excited enough to burst. Attention spans elongate outside. Children work purposefully, and they collaborate. In mixed-age groups, especially, children learn to model, teach and learn above their developmental levels.

Why do we insist on latching on to the latest technology for children’s learning when there is such a wealth of rich experience outdoors? And how can children relate to each other and to the natural world if we establish narrow compartmentalization on their learning experiences? Technology was made for people, not people for technology. Children use tools outdoors, and then can use the technological tools indoors to graph, draw, or write about their learning. But these tools cannot be an end in themselves.

In multiple intelligence theory, Howard Gardner added “naturalistic”because it is a separate area of intelligence. To me, this means that learning in nature allows that mode of intelligence to flourish, and to bridge to the others. In my mind, inside and out must be extensions of each other. Giving children twenty minutes on a paved playground isn’t my idea of outdoor play.

Many folk are advocating for children to be immersed in nature. I recently heard about a school that has three twenty-minute recesses distributed throughout the day to keep children’s minds humming. This is certainly a start, but exploring and thinking about natural environments means that more children can learn and be successful. It is, after all, a goal on which we can all agree.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Is play a high form of thought?

Since my last post I have been thinking more about play. Why is it so hard to understand its importance? Then, two days ago, I went to visit a friend who has made (“French”) horns all of his adult life. George wasn’t trained as an engineer. He had drafting lessons in the Navy, and went on to be chief engineer for a well-known brass instrument company. Finally, he set out on his own to build horns by hand. His horns are played in symphonies all over the world. He has so many patents he has lost count. George is 84 years old. He still talks about horn making like a child with a new toy. He said something that struck me as the essence of playful creativity during our lunch together: “People say I should just order mouthpieces from Europe. It would be so much easier and quicker. Why do I make my mouthpieces by hand? And I tell them, well, what fun would THAT be?!”

What fun indeed?

This morning, my Pre-K students were all over the room solving problems through play. When I say play, I mean not only playing with materials, or playing games, or playing pretend scenarios, but playing with ideas as well. Two boys worked together with Magna-tiles to make something that they envisioned: A rocket within a space station. They worked for a long time to get the surrounding “station” just right so that the separate rocket would fit inside, but slide out easily for launching. Two girls challenged themselves to make a ball go “up” a ramp. Through trial and error, they made two ramps connect so that when a ball ran down the first ramp, it would, through momentum, go up the second one, only to slide down again. Their image was that of a skateboarder going up a ramp and coming back down, they said.

Is this only play? If someone walked into our classroom they would see children playing with many materials, including Magna-tiles, and ramps with balls. They would not see the creative problem-solving, nor the give and take of conversation driving the creative thought. They might think, “Oh, well, I want my child to learn. This is just playing.” How wrong they would be!

Einstein said that playing with images and thoughts was crucial before actually thinking and speaking logically about a new idea. When children play with toys, art materials, or socio-dramatic roles, they are thinking, and playing with images in their minds. If we allow and even facilitate this kind of thinking in play, we may just be nurturing an Einstein, or another George. Can we afford to lose this opportunity? I sincerely think not.

To learn more about learning through play you might want to read about observing children at play to see their thinking and learning. School ultimately must prepare children for the future, so we must help them learn to learn, and think about their thinking. Discovery is intrinsically rewarding, as Jerome Bruner wrote. Using one’s own faculties to discover new ways to do things makes learning “fun”. It is what both children and grown-ups actually want, after all.