Meet Jessica Farmer, a former preschool teacher and current curriculum creator and Nashville improv comedy performer. We explore the importance of play -- for early childhood and for every day life -- in this episode. Full Show Notes
*Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org
[03:44] Childhood ambitions -- Jessica wanted to be an actress from a very young age -- although she did consider running for US President in 8th grade.
[06:44] Why is play important? A number of studies support the importance of play in early childhood learning:
Examples of Connecting Play and Learning in the Early Childhood Classroom
12:04: Guided play (connecting literacy, writing, drama, math, and science) through Goldilocks and the Three Bears
14:04: Gingerbread Man fuels writing
[21:07} Validating STEM/STEAM in early childhood classrooms/as a partner for guided play
[22:32] Gingerbread Man and spatial reasoning/map making
[24:07] STEAM engineering/creating a real house for the Gingerbread Baby, plus other variations of the stories (Gingerbread Girl, The Musubi Man, The Gurabia Man, The Runaway Wok) for compare/contrast
[26:44] Jessica's top 3 takeaways for successful learning through play.
[34:27] Guided Play In Action -- Building connections with poetry, engineering, blocks, drama, “I Made a Mechanical Dragon” (The Dragons are Singing Tonight)Buzzsprout - Let's get your podcast launched!
Jessica Farmer: Adventures in Learning Podcast, recorded 8/11/22
[00:01] Dr Diane: Wonder, curiosity, connection. Where will your adventures take you? I'm Dr. Diane, and thank you for joining me on today's episode of Adventures in Learning. So welcome to the Adventures in Learning podcast. I am so excited to welcome Jessica Farmer here today. You are in for a treat because we're going to be talking about learning through play, and she's got all kinds of really cool insights for those of you who are working with preschool children especially. So we're going to be talking about early childhood, we're going to be talking about play, and we might talk a little bit about some improv comedy as well. So welcome to the podcast, Jessica.
[00:40] Jessica: Hello. Thank you so much. I'm really glad to be here.
[00:44] Dr Diane: So, Jessica, I'm actually going to switch things up just a little bit, and I want to start by letting people get to know who you are.
[00:51] Jessica: Okay.
[00:52] Dr Diane: Can you describe your adventure in learning? What do you currently do and how did you get to this spot?
[00:58] Jessica: Great. Okay. Yes. So currently I work as the manager for the Pre K curriculum product design in a company called Quaver Ed. Quaver Ed is based in Nashville, Tennessee, and it's primarily a curriculum for music educators, and it's expanding into other domains such as pre k, and we've got a really strong music department and art department and an Ed tech kind of bent.
[01:32] Dr Diane: Awesome. And how did you get there?
[01:34] Jessica: Oh, yeah, that's so funny you asked, because I kind of joked that this was the dream job I never knew existed. Strangely so. I had been teaching pre k in Nashville public schools. I taught for five years, and I can't wait to talk to you about that because of the high and lows. I think a lot of teachers experience that. I certainly did, and I decided to resign after my fifth year, and it was a real leap of faith, I suppose, and strangely so. After that year, I felt like I was in college again. I started working at a restaurant, and then I got my certification to teach yoga. I started teaching yoga on the side, and I worked at a local farmers market part time. So I just had this real fun year of low stress. I think I really needed it. And a former classroom parent, I had taught both of her sons pre K, she had seen on Facebook that I was teaching yoga, and I ran into her on one of my dog walks, and she said, what are you doing? And I said, I don't really know. And she said, Well, I work for this curriculum company, and they need a contractor just to align pre k standards to their curriculum. Really cut and dry. And I thought, oh, this will be a great side gig. So I did that, and as I was working for the company, I really started digging into the curriculum and my opinions started showing up again. And I was like, wow. I think I have a lot to say about PreK. I thought that part of me had been kind of crushed. And then on a whim, I just submitted my application. And then they said they were looking for someone to manage the Pre K program and they liked it.
[03:27] Dr Diane: That's awesome. And isn't it funny how, in terms of connections, all of those things lead up to where we go? I like to say there's no wasted experience.
[03:37] Jessica: I like that a lot.
[03:38] Dr Diane: Let's go back to your beginning. What did you want to be when you were a kid and why?
[03:44] Jessica: Yeah, that one's really easy. I really wanted to be an actress. I just loved storytelling and entertaining people. I love to make believe. I always wanted to be an actress. And there was a time around 8th grade, I actually seriously wanted to be the President of the United States.
[04:06] Dr Diane: There's still time.
[04:07] Jessica: There's still time. So I suppose I was always very ambitious as a kid. But yeah, being an actress was the main thing, you know.
[04:16] Dr Diane: I think that there's so much acting involved in the best of teaching because it's what I call showtime. It's that bit where you draw the kids in and they start connecting to what you're doing. And the sillier you are, the more engaged they are.
[04:30] Jessica: That's true. Yes. They love the silly in pre K.
[04:34] Dr Diane: So what was your favorite book when you were a kid?
[04:37] Jessica: I don't have tons of memories of reading a lot as a kid, which is such a non teacher thing to say out loud.
[04:44] Dr Diane: Right.
[04:44] Jessica: I shouldn't admit that, but it's true.
[04:46] Dr Diane: It's great, actually. There are lots of kids who would appreciate hearing that.
[04:50] Jessica: Oh, good. I grew up with two older brothers, and I was the youngest, so there was a lot of activity. If I think about it, my favorite memory was Make Way for Ducklings. Yeah, I just have a strong memory of reading that with my mom a lot.
[05:08] Dr Diane: I remember that one well. Robert McCloskey. So with two older brothers and lots of activity, was there science in the world around you when you were little?
[05:20] Jessica: Yes. So I was thinking about that for this podcast. Yes, there was science, but it was definitely that play based science that we wouldn't have called science at the time. This was the 80s. Now I think we're really tuned into how exploratory science is for early childhood. But I have a lot of memories of playing outside, of making, like, food out of mud and leaves and lots of stuff like that with my friends and then with my brothers and my cousins. There were always a lot of boys around. And there were lots of games like War and all those games that we're not supposed to play anymore. But there was a lot of that going on.
[06:04] Dr Diane: One of my best friends when I was little was Tommy Timmes. Tom, if you're listening, hi. And we used to ride our bikes all around the neighborhood. And I remember we would play Laff-A-Lympics, which was big at the time. It was Scooby Doo and all the Hanna Barbara characters. And we would set up these obstacle courses and get all the neighbor kids involved and basically stage our own Saturday morning cartoon Olympics.
[06:29] Jessica: Oh, that's amazing.
[06:30] Dr Diane: It was just the best.
[06:34] Jessica: Yeah, that's incredible.
[06:35] Dr Diane: Well, and that's actually a great segue into this next question. You and I both had strong play experiences as kids. Why is play important?
[06:44] Jessica: It's important because it's just part of being alive. It's almost like, why is breathing important? It's almost like, how do you answer that? Because it's natural. I remember in graduate school, I went to a program that really focused on the power of play, and I never really considered play so academically, but one thing that resonated was they showed a video of puppies and wild animals, and their point was, like, everybody plays. That's just what happens. I mean, I could keep going.
[07:24] Dr Diane: Why is it important to play in the early childhood curriculum?
[07:28] Jessica: Yeah, it's certainly how children learn. I really do believe that play to a child doesn't feel like play. It feels like what we do. It's kind of their natural state of being. And so to embed play into their learning experience is what makes their experience authentic. And even as adults, we know that we need to care about something in order to learn about it. Otherwise, it's just kind of, it might as well be a language we don't understand. So I think play is connection.
[08:05] Dr Diane: I think that makes a lot of sense, and we're going to get much deeper into that connection when we come back after this break.
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[09:25] Dr Diane: Welcome back. It's so great to have Jessica with us, and we're going to delve a little bit deeper into why play is important as part of the curriculum for early childhood and how we can embed that and support it with the academics. So that seems to be kind of right where you're working right now, and I was hoping you could maybe give us some examples of how you would do that.
[09:45] Jessica: So you're saying how to embed play with academics?
[09:47] Dr Diane: Yeah. How would you connect the two? Because right now it feels like in early childhood, there are two very distinct schools of thought. There's play based learning, and then there's pushing early childhood closer and closer to kindergarten or even first grade. How can we combine the academics with the play so that we get that hands on learning that we both know is so important?
[10:09] Jessica: Yes. That was the journey of graduate school for me. All it was, was like, how do we make it play and then prove to the uppers that they're learning? So I'm thinking back to my experience in the classroom in pre K, and we called it choice time, which a lot of people call centers. I think that's probably the most important thing to protect is that uninterrupted child directed choice of play. So that means we want to avoid assigning centers as much as possible. However, as a teacher, I understand classroom management is a big, big deal, so I would do things like have limits to how many can go in a center. But it was sort of up to the children about how long they stayed and then we could problem solve together about how to take turns. But yeah, back to embedding play. OK, so embedding play in the classroom is really a lot of work for the teacher. I just want to say out loud, yes, it's tougher for the teacher than not. And so a lot of onus is on the teacher to follow the child's curiosity and then to ask good questions about what they're doing and can we extend their interest into writing in a way that feels organic and exciting to them? Writing? To me, it was always so powerful how much writing, the practice of writing, that children got during center play.
[11:51] Dr Diane: Absolutely. They learned. There's the letter sounds, there's the invented spelling. It's figuring out how to get what you want to communicate on paper and to have it validated no matter what you're putting on the paper.
[12:04] Jessica: Yeah, exactly. The validation. Absolutely. So that's one thing I noticed. Center or choice time really lent itself to a lot of organic writing opportunity. Another thing, math. I love finding sneaky ways to put math into play. And I say sneaky just because we never want it to feel like math time for the children. I just really never want that to happen for young children because I think I always try to remind myself that we as adults are the ones that created the learning domains. We're the ones that created the standards. We came after that or that came after the child not before it. So for the child, it is integrated. So math measurement with the water table, connecting it is my first thought always. Like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears — I love the measurement opportunities that can extend into play from that story. Building bridges, construction.
[13:17] Dr Diane: I was thinking, as you're talking, you're bringing me back to my preschool days, and I'm thinking about the things that we did, and there were so many opportunities to allow the child to take the lead on play. But as a teacher, you set the stage for that play, and so you provided the props and the things that you hope they'd engage with, knowing that that's where you wanted them to go. So if you wanted measurement, you made sure there was a ruler or a tape measure or pencils and paper in the center so that they could use those props as they were going. If you were reading all the different versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, then you might talk about it, have them act it out. And then in the center, you've got bowls and measuring cups, and you've got different props they can use. You've got different materials for building chairs, and you can give them challenges: today as you're playing, can you build me the perfect chair for the Three Bears?
[14:12] Jessica: That would be incredible. Yeah, well, that's reminding me too, about play in academia. I remember the books we would write about our fairy tales. It just blew me away how engaged the children were and how creative the books became. So we would rewrite the Gingerbread Man and I did a few things, different years. Sometimes the child would write their own page or we would write a group class, just different ways to write books. But they felt like it was because it was their project, because they were experts on this story, not because it was a writing activity.
[14:47] Dr Diane: I used to love the child generated books, and we had in our classrooms, we would have our bookcases in every room, and we always featured the student books. Like they would write a group collab book, and then it would be there right next to all of the other stories. So they could pull them out during reading time and read their work. And when their parents came in to visit or their grandparents or other family members, they'd show off their work. And again, it's that validation that what you have to say matters. So part of your work both the time you were in the classroom and what you're doing now involves building connections and ensuring that the preschool curriculum is connected to the child's cultural background. Can you give some examples of strategies you've used to achieve that?
[15:33] Jessica: Sure. Well, yes. So as a teacher and as a curriculum writer or one or the other?
[15:40] Dr Diane: Both.
[15:41] Jessica: Okay. As a teacher, it sounds pretty simplistic, but always do the interview before the school year begins or as close to the beginning as possible of which languages do we speak in the home? Just to understand what that is and make sure I'm clear on what that is. So do a little bit of homework about that, and then once I know the languages, I really like to find fun ways to bring those languages into the room. One of my favorite things was the hello song. There's plenty of hello songs. The kids always love learning that because they would be so proud that they could spell hello. And so one year, I had mostly English speakers, but I had a mother who spoke Japanese, another mother who was from India, another mother who spoke Spanish, several who spoke Spanish, and maybe one more language I'm forgetting, but I took a picture of each of the moms kind of greeting us, and then I would write in their home language their way of saying hello. So it became a chart, and so then it sort of became this classroom job. So every morning, whoever was the hello song, the child would select, which way are we going to say hello today? And so it was just so precious. One child would pick Kunichiwa one day, and one child might pick Namaste another day. And I liked it because I think my point to that story is those were languages that were significant to the population of my classroom. So I think as a teacher, it's so overwhelming to think of how much you can do, how much is available to us to do, and almost like how much we're obligated to do for advocacy of these families. But when I really just calm down and say, okay, here's what I'm working with right now this year, let's just bring these into the classroom, just simple little things, and let myself be proud of that, that's good stuff to do.
[17:58] Dr Diane: And then in terms of the work you're doing now with your company, how are you guys working to make sure that what you're putting out into the world is culturally sensitive and inclusive?
[18:08] Jessica: Yes, that's such a great question, because it's different, because writing a curriculum, you're working in the abstract. You're not full of a classroom of children. So kind of the basic things we do, it's sort of like the homework of finding out which language your children speak at home. But as a company, when we have visuals of people, we always want to check the demographics. Do they represent the diversity of our country well? Where are our internal biases showing up? And how can we challenge that and address that and make sure that we're representing diversity? And that's step one. But for me, I think what's really important is making sure the curriculum has a flexibility inside it for the teacher to have the autonomy and reminders, like reminders and autonomy to cater that day to his or her classroom’s demographics.
[19:11] Dr Diane: That makes a lot of sense to me. I think that teachers face so many challenges today, and there's more and more work being piled onto early educators in particular. And so when we respect the love and the compassion that they bring to what they're doing and give them the tools to be able to truly honor each family's experience, I think that makes a huge difference.
[19:41] Jessica: That was really well said. Yes, that's right.
[19:45] Dr Diane: One of the things that I do is I try to help train teachers in how to use multicultural children's literature as a way to create those opportunities so that within your centers, within your circle time, within everything you're doing, kids are seeing books that are both windows and mirrors. They're able to see the books that reflect their own experiences, but also books that open up a window to other cultures, other worldviews, other perspectives. And I think that when you start that at birth, basically, it helps build more compassionate citizens. And who doesn't want that?
[20:22] Jessica: Yes. Actually, I still remember your story about I think you were in Germany.
[20:26] Dr Diane: Yeah, I think I told that story when I met you at the NAEYC conference. That my first book character that I remember was Peter from Ezra Jack Keats — Peter's Chair, Whistle for Willie, all of that. And Peter really helped me transition back into life in America because he showed me other children's experiences, and so it felt normal when I arrived at Fort Bragg.
[20:52] Jessica: That's great.
[20:55] Dr Diane: What are some strategies you've used to build connections between all of these things — play, children's literature, and hands-on STEAMto create an effective learning environment for early childhood?
[21:07] Jessica: Yeah. Okay, well, before I continue, I love that you brought up STEAM, because I'll be honest, for all the teachers listening, I didn't know if I was doing STEAM. It wasn't really on my radar. And when I went to your conference, your workshop, I thought, oh, I guess I was teaching STEAM.
[21:27] Dr Diane: Yeah, I think that's absolutely normal for us as early childhood educators. One of the stories that I share is I was doing STEM and STEAM in the classroom long before that term was out there, and I just didn't realize it. I mean, think of every child you've ever had who has asked you how many bones are in a giraffe's neck? And you then go and you investigate. Or all the times that you've built bridges and you've gone through the engineering and design process with kids, or that you've gone on scientific investigations about what makes a drop of water, and you're connecting that back to literature. You're doing STEAM. And I think that as early childhood educators, we sometimes short change ourselves about the natural inquiry that we're doing with kids in the classroom.
[22:13] Jessica: Yeah.
[22:16] Dr Diane: If you don't know the term, we're talking about science, technology, engineering, art, and math.
[22:22] Jessica: Okay, so, Diane, tell me the question. It was about how did I integrate…
[22:25] Dr Diane: How did you integrate play, children’s literature, and that hands-on STEAM to create an effective learning environment.
[22:32] Jessica: Sure, it's funny I keep returning to folktales, and it's not just because I'm talking to you, but that's one of the reasons, that's the main reason I went to your workshop. But usually doing a study of a fairy tale or a folk tale is how I was able to do that kind of work. So I could give you a couple of examples. Sure. Okay. So first of all, I love folktales because they really lend themselves to repetition. And so they kind of organically became the project of that month. So, for example, one example would be the Gingerbread Man. Okay. So integrating the way we would integrate, well there was the literature, there was the story, and then like I told you, rewriting the story and we mentioned dramatizing the story and they really love that. And so there's the literacy and the comprehension and then the science and work. A lot of things like chasing, going on a scavenger hunt of the Gingerbread Man through the entire school. And so the Gingerbread Man leaves little silly notes and we get to find the notes and go to the next spot. And then from that you could create a map. Where did we go and why, and then we get to see that spatial reasoning, I think you call it that, right?
[24:06] Dr Diane: Absolutely.
[24:07] Jessica: Okay. And then my favorite thing, one year with the Gingerbread Man, and it changed every year because it was so dependent on the children. But one year we got really into his house and we brought in big cardboard boxes and we talked about designing it. And inside the classroom, we created this life sized Gingerbread Man house and we had wallpaper samples, and we were also studying construction. So we designed the house even like on the cardboard, we glued little wood and siding. And then eventually we decorated it with icing and cookies. And as a teacher, I had someone say, oh my gosh, aren't you worried about bugs? And I was like, yes, but I'm going to do it anyway. And we did it, and there really was not a bug issue, but we had this decorated Gingerbread Baby house for a while, probably a week or so. The food element, that's just reminding me of another thing we did with the Little Red Hen. And you've got bread. So the lesson inside I always use with the Little Red Hen was building community. And I love that investigation of should or shouldn't you share, what would you do? I love how that's kind of up for discussion. That's my favorite thing. But then bread baking became really exciting. And then I had a parent donate a bread machine. And so about every other day for a while, we were making up our own bread recipes.
[25:47] Dr Diane: Oh, wow.
[25:48] Jessica: And just baking bread. And we would make recipe books. And then I remember our final bread recipe. We made it, the children named it something like Rainbow candy bread or something, and they were so proud. And we have a little recipe book of bread.
[26:05] Dr Diane: That's awesome. What a cool extension. And you're talking about measurement and you're talking about chemistry because you're talking about what blends together. I mean, that's some basic chemistry investigation right there.
[26:17] Jessica: That's so great. So I didn't even know that.
[26:20] Dr Diane: I was thinking with the Gingerbread Man. There are so many different versions. There's the Gingerbread Girl. There's a Hawaiian version, The Musubi Man. There's an Armenian version, The Gurabia Man. There's The Runaway Wok. So you've got opportunities to compare and contrast stories across cultural perspectives as well, which is really cool. So there's just so many different things you can do with that.
[26:43] Jessica: Yeah.
[26:44] Dr Diane: So if you could offer two or three takeaways to a teacher based on what you've learned for successful learning through play, what would those be?
[26:52] Jessica: Embrace the fairy tales. They're your friend. They help with classroom management because the kids are interested, and they help you extend projects. They really are a great tool. Another takeaway, the children's families are really a great tool. I know that sometimes that can feel overwhelming or scary or even annoying. I'll be really honest. I know some teachers feel like, I don't want to deal with the parents. This is my classroom. And I totally understand that. But if I could just say when you invite the parents and use them as valuable, really tools for your classroom, it's very rewarding, and it makes your life a little bit easier, too.
[27:38] Dr Diane: Sometimes parents can be really good partners.
[27:42] Jessica: Yes, it's really rewarding. It's just really incredible. And then the last one is the play. Please, let's keep playing in the classroom. How do we protect the child directed play well?
[27:58] Dr Diane: And there are so many studies that actually do support learning through play, and I can throw some links into the story notes for those because you get the academic gains when you've got to play.
[28:10] Jessica: Okay, let's look at how you're able to extend their play well.
[28:16] Dr Diane: And that's the key, I think we said that earlier, is that you can use let the child lead as the teacher. You set up the structure to support that play, and you're able to engage and scaffold with wonderful questions and opportunities and activities that are ultimately going to get to those same goals. But it's going to do it in a healthier way for everybody.
[28:40] Jessica: Yeah, it's hard work. It's such hard work.
[28:44] Dr Diane: Oh, absolutely. I think that being an early childhood educator is probably one of the hardest and most rewarding tasks in the world.
[28:52] Jessica: Yeah.
[28:53] Dr Diane: So we're going to take another break, and when we come back, we're going to look to the learning adventures of the future.
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[29:53] Dr Diane: So welcome back. And before we move into the learning adventures of the future, Jessica, I understand that you do comedy improv. Can you share a little bit with us about that?
[30:10] Jessica: I love that you said that. I very much love improvisational comedy, and I've also very much hated it at times, so that's why I say it's a journey. But currently I'm in a female group and we perform once a month in Nashville, and we're very silly and irreverent and fun, and I love it. But really, Diane, if you want me to talk about improv, I'll go down a rabbit hole.
[30:43] Dr Diane: How did you get into it, and how is it connected to your journey as a teacher? Because I know they connect together.
[30:49] Jessica: I know I needed a little structure. So in my twenties, I went off to pursue acting. I was going to be an actor. And when I was in acting classes, I met an improv teacher that I really connected with him. His name is Armando Diaz. If improvisers are listening, he's a wonderful teacher, and he really helped me at the time to appreciate, I hate to say, like, my gifts, but if you're in a really dramatic acting class, at least me, I began to become really filled with doubt and fear. And then when it was time for improv class, I started to have fun again and realized maybe I was kind of good at this. And to me, that's just been so powerful because I think the connection is the play, and it's so improv is not scripted. So just like early childhood, we have to work with what is exactly in front of us, very literal. If we create too much meaning and get our ideas too much in the way, it's not interesting, it's not powerful, it's not really truthful anymore. It's sort of just someone else's idea. And so for me, as a teacher, I think improv helps. That skill of active listening to what's happening right in front of me with the children and rather than what I think I'm supposed to do, what's happening right now is where my head needs to be.
[32:22] Dr Diane: I love that notion that the connection is the play. I think that that's really important to remember and hold on to. So what are your hopes for early childhood education? You spent time in the classroom you're currently working with curriculum development.
[32:38] Jessica: I would really like for us maybe as a country that we learn to trust the power of play, that we don't think play is the enemy of success.
[32:52] Dr Diane: I like that. What currently brings you joy?
[32:56] Jessica: Yes. Well, my improv work brings me joy. I have a really precious big dog named Oscar, and everyone that knows me knows I'm obsessed with Oscar. And I also like cooking speaking of STEM. When I do cook, I always feel really happy that I did it.
[33:15] Dr Diane: That's awesome. So Oscar, is he by any chance named after Oscar on The Office?
[33:22] Jessica: No, he's not. Why? Do you have an animal named that?
[33:25] Dr Diane: No, I just happened to be obsessed with The Office.
[33:28] Jessica: That's great. I love that show. It's great. But, no, he's not. It was just kind of a name that came to me.
[33:35] Dr Diane: It's a great name.
[33:36] Jessica: It is a great name.
[33:39] Dr Diane: If you were back on your very first day of teaching, go back to when you first entered an early childhood classroom, what is one lesson that you wish somebody had told you that would have made it easier for you starting out?
[33:56] Jessica: Oh, that's a great one. I almost think I wish someone had told me how hard it is and that it's okay, that I'm okay. That something about being gentler with myself. That's something that I think would be useful for teachers to know that we're not perfect. And it is a really hard job. It's hard.
[34:24] Dr Diane: And then I am going to ask you one more question.
[34:26] Jessica: Oh, yeah, please.
[34:27] Dr Diane: So we talked about folktales and fairy tales. Are there any other lessons that really stand out as being a favorite thing you loved to teach and make connections with?
[34:37] Jessica: Oh, okay. I love blocks. Having a full block center with a nice big open space, that was one of my favorite things. I'm trying to think specific lessons within blocks.
[34:54] Dr Diane: You're talking about blocks. You triggered stuff for me because I remember I used to love our block center as well because there's so much that goes on in blocks. Talk about a vehicle for STEM or STEAM — blocks does that. And we used to post posters or poems in the area. And that started back with my dissertation research. I did my dissertation based on preschoolers’ responses to poetry. And we were looking at would they respond to poetry, and particularly if it was connected to and embedded in meaningful activity? And so with one of the poems we had, Jack Prelutsky's “I Made a Mechanical Dragon” (The Dragons are Singing Tonight), which I can still remember the first couple of lines: “I made a mechanical dragon out of boxes and papers and strings.” And it goes on. I mean, this is the first maker dragon ever. It's like all of these pieces, they're part of the dragon. And so, in true teacher fashion, we wrote the poem on a dragon so they could have the environmental print in the area. We read the poem over and over, and the kids spontaneously, just by having that poster in the center, started building their own dragons and more and more dragons all week. And it became this thing with what else can we build dragons with? And so they brought in LEGOs and they did blocks and it became an obsession that lasted for weeks. And so when I had my own preschool, we brought that in and we did stuff like that. So we had the mechanical dragon and then we'd post other poems and they would sometimes just start as STEM starters for the kids on what are we going to build today? And you'd have the poem in the corner and it would be something that they could go and do. And it was a really simple thing. Didn't require a lot of extra work or extra prep. But you were introducing poetry, connecting it to whatever that month’s theme was, and using your block center as a place for the kids to have their own lab to explore.
[36:46] Jessica: That sounds incredible. It kind of just gave me chills when you said they just started creating their own.
[36:53] Dr Diane: There are some powerful images from that that I'll throw in to the story notes as well, because those were pictures I used in my dissertation. And my own kid happens to be in a couple of them, so I think I can get away with it.
[37:06] Jessica: Yeah, well, you just inspired me. One thing I also love was doing, I did it occasionally, was doing an author study, but based on the art. For example, Eric Carle. I had a class where we really did Eric Carle style illustrations. And it was so powerful the way they would talk about Eric Carle after that as if he was their colleague. It was just fabulous.
[37:37] Dr Diane: Absolutely. Did you do the collage where they were ripping the paper and gluing it on together? That kind of stuff?
[37:44] Jessica: Yes. Speaking of projects, we started with a sturdy piece of paper and they would paint it one color and it might have a little bit of white and stuff in it and then we let that dry for a day so they all have this really rich background. And then we would do the tissue collage so it was very textured and just very beautiful. And so they were so proud of that.
[38:06] Dr Diane: That's awesome. We used to use Eric Carle in conjunction with insects and caterpillars and butterflies and metamorphosis. And so we would do the art as a basis as we were looking at The Very Clumsy Click Beetle, and The Very Quiet Cricket, and all of those other ones, The Grouchy Ladybug.
[38:30] Jessica: I love that one. The ladybug, yeah.
[38:33] Dr Diane: We would connect all of those together and they would compare and contrast different insects as well during that time. And it became part of a year long study where I think I referenced the kid who wanted to know how many bones were in a giraffe's neck.
[38:47] Jessica: That's an amazing question.
[38:48] Dr Diane: There are seven, by the way. It's the same as you and I have. I learned that early on because Andrew was very interested, and so because that year he happened to be my animal lover, it became part of what we did. And so by the end of this year, the kids were able to tell you the characteristics of a mammal, of a reptile, of an insect, of a bird, and they could compare and contrast it. And it was all through hands on exploration. It was through the things we read, through the pictures we looked at, through the play that they had, the field trips. We were able to bring in a zookeeper because there was a zoo nearby. And so we had a zookeeper come and talk about what they did. And these kids really had a depth of knowledge because it was their interest that you'd find in a middle school, I think, just because they were so interested and we went with what they wanted to learn about. And I was able to embed alphabet learning and numbers and all the rest of it in there, but I started with their play and where they wanted to go, and so we built in opportunities to play and to learn, and it was great.
[39:57] Jessica: That's wonderful. Well, it makes me want to go be a teacher.
[40:02] Dr Diane: There are wonderful things about teaching. Well, Jessica, thank you so much for joining us today on Adventures in Learning. I so appreciate all that you had to share, and I look forward to talking to you again soon. You've been listening to the Adventures in Learning podcast with your host, Dr. Diane. If you love the Adventures in Learning podcast, we'd love for you to subscribe right and give us a review. We can't wait to see you for our next Adventure in Learning.