[10:07] Connecting early childhood curriculum to nature and outdoor play to build STEM/STEAM connections and to scaffold and guide discovery
[47:47] Hopes and dreams for the future of early childhood education
It was such a delight to have Maureen and Deborah on today's episode of Adventures in Learning. I felt like I got some soul medicine today, as we talked about what best practices in early childhood education. And I'm just grateful for the many generations of kids who have had the opportunity to experience the love and the nurture that Millbrook Community Preschool has provided. If you want to learn more about the preschool, please reach out to current director Maureen. You can also check them out on Facebook and Instagram.
[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.
[00:15] Dr. Diane: So welcome to the Adventures in Learning podcasts. I'm Dr. Diane, your host, and I am so excited to welcome not one, but two friends to the podcast today. At some point in the last 16 years, we've all sat in the director's chair at the Millbrook Community Preschool at Grace Church. We've all been teachers there, and this is going to be just a wonderful conversation about friendship and early childhood and everything in between. So you're in for a treat. So, ladies, welcome. I'm going to start by having you introduce yourselves.
[00:47] Deborah Coconis: I'm Deborah Coconis, and I'm so grateful to be here with Maureen and you, Diane. I recently retired from the preschool after five years as director and another maybe eight years as a teacher.
[01:06] Maureen Sarma: Right.
[01:07] Deborah Coconis: So I was there 13-14 years, and I started when my son was in preschool there. Diane brought me on board, and here we are today, all these years later.
[01:21] Maureen Sarma: Hello, I'm Maureen Sarma, and I had the daunting honor of stepping into Diane's shoes when she stepped back from directorship of Millbrook Community Preschool in what year, Diane? I don't think in linear terms. Please remind me, when did you leave? When did I start? How long did I…?
[01:43] Dr. Diane: I do the math based on how old Ella is at this point. She's 20, so it was nine years ago.
[01:47] Maureen Sarma: So, like Deborah, I had a child that attended the school, fell in love with it, and I think I actually took over the position. I think the year that I started, the day that I started, my eldest daughter started kindergarten. I started that job, and my son started preschool all the same day.
[02:08] Dr. Diane: That's an emotional day.
[02:09] Maureen Sarma: It was. And he was one of the students in my class.
[02:14] Dr. Diane: I've done that.
[02:16] Deborah Coconis: We all have that in common. We have been the teachers to our child or children, and I think they're better for it.
[02:26] Dr. Diane: Yeah, that's one of the things that makes the preschool stand out, is it's that sense of family, that sense of connection and belonging, and then that sense that they're capable of so much more than we think they are. Okay, so I'm going to start by saying what brought you to the preschool in the first place? You guys both kind of alluded that it was your children initially, but how did you wind up at Millbrook Community Preschool?
[02:54] Maureen Sarma: I can tell you, I had been living in Ireland. I've been living and working over there for many years. And I had moved back to New York, my home, with a young child, and was living over in a place called Hyde Park, upstate New York. And my husband and I were caretaking for a farm. It was sort of an interim thing as we were getting settled back in the area. And when it came time for me to look for preschool, I was pottering around the village of Millbrook. My parents lived just outside it. And I bumped into this mother in the library, and she was just talking up Millbrook Community Preschool, and she said, It's just across the road. I can walk you over if you want. I think it's, like, their last day of school. So I did. I dutifully followed her with my daughter in hand. And I was just so thrilled by what I saw because it was your last week of school and you were having a water day in the playground and there were buckets of water and sponges and paddling pools, and the teachers were playing with the kids and everybody was so deliriously happy. And then I was introduced to this lovely, energetic little thing, Diane Schnoor, who took me on a whirlwind tour of the preschool and just said, Are you available Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the fall? And that was it. I didn't look at anything else. I just fell in love with what was so clearly a nurturing, natural environment for children. It was just a no brainer for me.
[04:28] Dr. Diane: I still remember that day. I remember Amber. I remember baby Amber when she walked in and how just excited she was to be there.
[04:38] Maureen Sarma: She was. Do you know what she said? Diane, this is just the most insulting thing.
[04:42] Dr. Diane: Right.
[04:42] Maureen Sarma: Because I had dedicated the first couple of years of her childhood to her, of course. And I remember the first day I had asked my husband to take the day off work, and we drove into the parking lot. I was prepared for, like, this deluge of emotion, and this little voice says from the back of the car, don't come in. It's my place. And I said, what?This is about me as well. This is a day for both of us. Mommy's going to walk you through the door. Oh, no. She said, Please just leave me in the parking lot. This is my place. And she walked through that door and she didn't so much as wave back. And that has been her ever since.
[05:25] Deborah Coconis: You know who they are from the beginning.
[05:27] Maureen Sarma: Absolutely. What about you?
[05:31] Deborah Coconis: So I had moved to New York from Massachusetts, where I had been teaching after school programs for years and doing theater, and we moved here when my son was born, and I had not worked for the first three years of his life. I brought him to preschool. Also remember my visit to the school when it was circle time, and Ella was a student then. And I remember you showing pic. She was doing a share, and it was a photograph of her in a production of Annie, and you were in it as well. And I thought, these are my people. And then watching the children do the jump up and down and seeing them each have a moment where they shone. And I just loved that. And my son, he was a student there as a three year old and then as a four year old, you asked if I would like to teach there. But prior to that, you always welcomed parents in to volunteer. And I love to be a part of that and get to know the school that way.
[06:45] Dr. Diane: Well, one of the things I know, for me at least, is I had experienced enough schools at that point where parents were not welcome as volunteers. And as a mom of two, I wanted to be part of what was going on in my kids' lives and wanted to be able to share and contribute. And I found we were better as a school when you guys were there and helping. I mean, I couldn't do the art you did, Deborah. I still remember these little mini solar systems that were revolving. She literally made you can't see this. It's not a visual, but there were these solar systems where there was the sun in the middle, and they made clay planets that literally revolved around the sun on, like, little wires. And these are three and four year olds who are making these, but they could tell you what the planets were and they knew exactly what their order was. This is Deborah.
[07:36] Maureen Sarma: Deborah's amazing. Deborah is amazing.
[07:39] Deborah Coconis: I really enjoyed being in the art room.
[07:41] Maureen Sarma: Yeah, that's your happy place.
[07:44] Dr. Diane: Well, your happy place, I think, was the art room. For me, it was always the connection with literature and science. Like, I loved being able to, even before STEM and STEAM were cool, I loved being able to build those links between books. So I know we all had sort of our own thing that we brought in terms of strengths and what we love to do. And we alluded to Deborah and art, and I want you to talk more about that in just a moment. For me, I know it was the STEM/STEAM piece. Even before STEM became a thing, STEM was cool. We were doing it. We were connecting the science and language arts, because I found, for me at least, I love teaching thematically. That's how I had taught elementary school. And so I found they were super excited to do science if we could connect it back to books like the year that we did Jan Brett and we literally covered all of the windows with murals of each of the habitats. And the kids were comparing and contrasting the animals, and they knew what animals lived in each habitat, and then that kind of dovetailed and snowballed, and it went from the habitats to, well, what's the difference between a mammal and a bird? And then, what's the difference between a bird and an insect? And there was one year that literally they were dividing animals according to classification, and they could tell you what a reptile was, an amphibian, a bird. And I thought, These are my little scientists. And I kind of give young Andrew Osborne all the credit for that, because he is the child who asked me initially how many bones are in a giraffe’s neck? There are seven in case you didn’t know. There are the exact same number of bones in a giraffe's neck as there are in ours. They're just a whole lot bigger. Andrew, he was my push into figuring out that science was an entry point into literacy for so many of my kids.
[09:33] Deborah Coconis: Yes.
[09:34] Dr. Diane: And that was sort of where my passion was and followed all these many years later because I'm a curious person. I like to play. And, Maureen, tell us about what you brought or what your favorite part was.
[09:45] Maureen Sarma: It's really interesting when I started in the school, what I had a really hard time doing, actually, Diane, was stepping into your shoes, and it took me a year or so to really accept that I couldn't do that, that I had to forge my own path. And it's a daunting thing to step into a position of public scrutiny.
[10:06] Dr. Diane: Right.
[10:07] Maureen Sarma: And I had been shying away from that for a number of years. I had worked for the Department of Education and Science in Ireland for many years before I moved back to the US. But I had indulged being at home as a stay at home parent for seven years before you whispered, what was it you used to do in Ireland? Because I'm thinking of moving, and I think you might be a good fit for this school. We started our conversation, and you groomed me then for the next couple of weeks for this job. I found myself kind of revisiting my happiest memories from childhood. And I was really lucky to have attended a nursery school in Beacon, New York, that was magically on the grounds of this cloistered Order of Carmelite nuns. So while the nuns were tucked away, we had a morning preschool program in the basement of another church. And what impressed upon me the most of my time there was our access to the outdoors and playing. And I talked to Deborah about this so much. I had so many profoundly happy memories from childhood of just being outside with my friends and having elbow room, and there was a pond there, and they gave us nets and we could look for tadpoles, and we brought all of our found objects back into school. So I had really strong memories of that. And funny enough, I had really strong memories of the play equipment that we use. So when I was kind of looking around the school as a whole, I remember seeing this logo on a piece of play equipment. I think it might have been like a little toy high chair for the kitchen area. And I remembered that logo as a child. I remember sitting on these little trucks and scooting around the school and being so blissfully happy, and that kind of led us on this journey. We were very fortunate in that we had this amazing opportunity to renovate the space, and we said, let's try and figure out a way to support this idea of the environment as another teacher. Right? So we actually, as you know, we took a lot out of the school. We gutted and we rebuilt, and we took down walls to give kids more space to play instinctively. And I think that from that, it was a reimagining of what it meant to be a child in a first learning setting. From that, I believe that the STEM stuff flowed so easily, because once we had redone our space, we then thought about how we would connect that outdoor program, and that's where Deborah stepped in and then just took the school in another wonderful direction in terms of nature based play.
[13:13] Deborah Coconis: Well, that's what my happiest memories school wise were. I didn't go to a public kindergarten class. I went to Four Acres Country Day School, which was in a small town in Massachusetts. There was nothing around it. It was on an old farm, and the school was in a little house, and we were outdoors. I remember the joy of being outdoors, in a meadow and doing a maypole dance, and just exploring birds' nests. And it was not a classroom. And as a child also, I think I've heard you mentioned this in previous podcasts. Our youth was about being outdoors and playing freely, and those are the happy memories. Those are the times of exploration and learning. And so we, Millbrook Community Preschool is on the beautiful grounds of Grace Church, and we have an exceptional outdoor area, and I wanted to make the most of that.
[14:27] Maureen Sarma: Right? Yeah. I always love the idea of science and nature in the classroom. We always indulge that, and we always indulge children's interests. I remember one day it was raining, and this was my first year there, and one of the students said, can we go out and look for worms? And I said, yes, ma'am, of course. Let's go out and look for worms. And there is so much learning, and you're learning about the water cycle just by standing outside. You're seeing water run into the drains. You're seeing it drip off the trees. You're seeing plants nourished, you're seeing little critters bubble up from deep within the earth. In a way, you don't need to teach that, the environment is teaching.
[15:09] Dr. Diane: Right.
[15:09] Maureen Sarma: You're just standing by and holding the child's hand and discovering it together, rediscovering for yourself and watching them discover.
[15:17] Dr. Diane: And I think you just hit on something really powerful, that you're discovering together. And I think that the best teaching happens when we're working alongside. There's some guided scaffolding, but you're also following the child's lead, and you're allowing them to discover and to be creative problem solvers.
[15:40] SPONSOR AD
[16:49] Maureen Sarma: What is preschool really for? What is it? It's a time, I think, to learn emotional self regulation. That is the thing that makes you successful in school. It's the time to learn, to connect and to share and to listen and to appreciate. And those lessons can all be facilitated through a connection to science and nature. I think those lessons are innate. And then again, like, you know, you're talking about connecting to literacy. We did actually make a designated library in the school. You know, that was just one of the happiest things that we did. Right. We always wanted a place in our school for books to live permanently, carpet, cozy armchairs for children.
[17:39] Deborah: I think that that all just comes together when you just look at how children play and learn. Follow that. Before we redesigned our school, we just watched how they play.
[17:53] Maureen Sarma: Yes, we watched, where are they going? Let's design everything around the way that they want to play with water. They need to play with, they need to play with sand. They need to be on the floor. They need to be able to move things. We got outdoor issue blocks, Diane, and put them indoors. And they were able to build structures as big as their imaginations, which they can climb into and on top of.
[18:20] Deborah Coconis: And they're so big that they had to cooperate with each other.
[18:24] Dr. Diane: You're building cooperation through blocks. You're building imagination, and you're doing engineering.
[18:30] Maureen Sarma: And you're looking at balance, you're looking at weight. It's cooperative. You have to pick up this big piece of lumber and balance it together on these pegs and figure out a way for the structure to stand safely. You have to stagger these blocks and.
[18:48] Deborah Coconis: Imagination, storytelling, all the little animals end up getting woven into stories, inhabiting these spaces with the kids, right?
[18:56] Dr. Diane: Yeah. And I think I saw those blocks when I was visiting you guys in May.
[19:00] Maureen Sarma: And you're like, what are they?
[19:02] Dr. Diane: Well, no, we used them because I was storytelling with the kids, and we were telling the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. And so we wound up taking the blocks and using them as part of what we were doing, and it became a live demonstration, interactive storytelling.
[19:17] Maureen Sarma: I mean, isn't it wonderful? They create the set with you, right? It's wonderful.
[19:21] Dr. Diane: No, I absolutely love that. And you guys are sort of hitting two things that I want to touch on. One, I do want to hit on what you all did with the preschool, because I think that it wound up being both a blessing and something that helped protect you when COVID hit.
[19:37] Maureen Sarma: Oh, my goodness.
[19:38] Dr. Diane: Because you had put so much time into redesigning the preschool and making sure that we had the outdoor play area when I came to visit, I loved the outdoor classroom that was out there. Isn't that what got you through COVID when you were allowed to come back to school?
[19:53] Deborah Coconis: Absolutely. I had always envisioned having an outdoor classroom space somewhere on the ground, and it wasn't until COVID that it became a necessity. And that is the positive that came out of the pandemic for us, is, let's open up this box and really think outside of it. The sky is the limit. So I took the summer before the 2021 school year. So I took a private workshop with a nature based early childhood educator, Matt Flower of the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. So we did this online. We met weekly because I knew if we were going to be outside for an indefinite amount of time, I wanted to have the tools. I wanted to access whatever resources were available. And so I started looking at the area surrounding the campus and designating. Oh, well, this is a wild space. Or we can cross this back road here and go into a little woods and use that space, too. We can use the field across the street. That's a public area. And I created a map, and the children all got maps at the beginning of the year, and they learned to follow a map. It was hand drawn. It was very simple. But they loved being responsible for the material. And Matt really taught me, one of the things he taught me was the words to say instead of “Be careful.” It's like, look around you when you're holding that stick. Is anyone around you? So you can play with sticks. You can play with rocks. Let's teach you how to do it safely.
[22:08] Maureen Sarma: Yes. I love that, actually, one of the days that I'd come in, because I didn’t work as much then with us, everything scaled down, but I remember coming in, and you were doing a rock throwing workshop for the children, how to throw rocks into the stream safely whilst protecting your friends. And I'm like, this is so amazing. And I have to tell you, Diane, it is so much easier to give children space than it is to contain them.
[22:36] Dr. Diane: Absolutely.
[22:36] Maureen Sarma: It is so much easier. Everyone is happier. I mean, I remember days where we took them. We were outside all day. In the winter, Deborah actually started having a fire pit. The children helped build the fire.
[22:51] Deborah Coconis: That was one of the things I talked about with Matt, how to do this safely, because he does that in his programming as well. So there are standards that you can follow to do it safely. And we did snow suits, and watched the snow fall.
[23:16] Maureen Sarma: Teaching in the snow. Do you know how many children are kept indoors because of inclement weather? It's like this school that Deborah created, ultimately is, it's a school where you can live and thrive and learn in all weather. There's so many limiting views when you think of it, not just in regard to learning, in life. We have there's so many limiting ideas out there. This is Deborah's. Like well, why not?
[23:47] Deborah Coconis: Why can't we? And I think we all realized what we were capable of. Who knew we could stay outside for 3 hours at a time?
[23:58] Maureen Sarma: Or we could all become YouTube stars.
[24:01] Dr. Diane: I know, I was very impressed with that. I've known this staff for years.
[24:08] Maureen Sarma: Did you see some of that content?
[24:10] Dr. Diane: You shared some of it with me. And there were folks who I never thought would ever be a YouTube star, who went out there and used the Internet to teach kids during the pandemic.
[24:20] Maureen Sarma: I have to tell you, Diane, so this is like week one of lockdown, and Deborah sends all of us a link to a video she'd made. The most beautiful, comforting, sweet video. It was around St. Patrick's Day. I remember you had some horribly kitschy decorations, and music, and you were dancing, and you talked to the children about we were all in this together. We're going to be Germbusters. And it was so comforting for us to see your face, right, and for you to comfort them. And I remember we watched it, and we all then got on the phone and said, Deborah, that was amazing. You are just Mr. Rogers incarnate. And she said, I'm glad you enjoyed it because I want you all to make a video each and every week. And we did it. We did it.
[25:07] Dr. Diane: And we were so proud.
[25:08] Maureen Sarma: Yes. We had so much I mean, listen, you can ask varying members of our staff how much they enjoyed it, but for me, it was just another opportunity to look at this natural environment as something that we can share with kids and connect.
[25:28] Deborah Coconis: We connected. The families would respond with their own videos to us and show us what their children were doing at home. And it was interactive. It became interactive.
[25:40] Maureen Sarma: And there were lots of nature videos. We did a lot of work outdoors.
[25:43] Dr. Diane: Yeah.
[25:43] Maureen Sarma: You know, we did a lot of content outdoors and books outdoors.
[25:47] Dr. Diane: Well, that makes sense. And you guys are sort of hitting on, I think, what's the most important thing underlying early childhood education and what we did at the preschool, which is connection. All of this stems on building connection. Connection between the teachers and the children, between the school and the families, between the kids and each other. And with nature you're using the whole environment to build this sense of connection and of power and of self worth. I mean, social emotional learning before it had a name, in so many ways. So I am going to ask you guys a question, just kind of to go back to make sure that people who are listening are on the same page with us. How would you all define play-based learning? Because I think that we would agree that's sort of what underpins Millbrook Community Preschool, at least. How would we define that for somebody who was just getting started or looking at different early childhood opportunities?
[26:46] Maureen Sarma: How do we define play-based?
[26:47] Deborah Coconis: I would say giving children tools, opportunity, and support, and watching what they do with those.
[27:04] Maureen Sarma: Right? Because children play, that's what they do naturally. They actually don't naturally take instruction, in my experience. Take a little bit of it. A little bit. But where they really can connect and focus is when they have a stake in the process, right?
[27:23] Deborah Coconis: And they feel empowered.
[27:24] Maureen Sarma: They feel empowered. So I think that play-based learning is really about facilitating their instincts, right? Because their instincts are to touch and to pull things apart and to climb and to speak out. Actually speaking out is a big thing. And to be able to receive that and I said this before badly, I'd like to say it again better. It's like when you look up in your classroom and something's not working, you actually have the ability to tweak it, but it's to be able to do that without feeling that your ego is bruised. It's like I have to follow them, right, rather than push my agenda here. It always works. It always works to let go. So I think that play-based learning is very much about letting go.
[28:26] Dr. Diane: And I think it's being a bit of an improv artist. It is because you have to kind of be able to go with where the kid is. And if you had a lesson that you were planning on taking in one direction and they suddenly decide we're going in this direction, you're able to think on your feet and figure out, sure, let's follow their interest, let's go with it. And how can I slide in some of that content?
[28:49] Maureen Sarma: Exactly.
[28:51] Dr. Diane: And so you're following their lead and then you're asking those little questions to get them thinking, providing the statements to sort of put some wrapper around it. But you're going with where their interests are and they're going to remember.
[29:04] Maureen Sarma: And looking how they look. I remember children look down, they see so much more than we do when they look down. I have a very good friend who is, she has held on to some of these really beautiful instincts from childhood. So when we go for a walk together, she's looking down. You know, you have peepers in the trees. You sit outside on a summer evening and you're like you marvel at how beautiful it is. I remember walking with her one day and she said, oh, there's a peeper. And she picked it up and a peeper is this little gray frog that's the size of your fingernail. And I said, Elena, I have never seen one before. And she said, well, there's another one right there by your shoe, but they're everywhere. You just have to look. And I think it's like that with kids, sort of honoring where their curiosity goes, never making them feel ashamed from going off track, because actually, the track they put you on could be the most illuminating and beautiful and joyful one you could hop on. That’s play-based. It's so much more than that, like it is the environment. Of course it's for me, it's having access to water. It's having access, like I said, to sand. It's being able to go to the easel and paint without having to ask permission. It's being able to move freely.
[30:28] SPONSOR AD
[32:01] Dr. Diane: So I'm going to ask you guys to think about one of your favorite teachable moments or your favorite lessons over the years. Either something you did or something you observed, but just think back for a moment because there’s some rich experience here. And I think it would be good to share some of those stories and those things.
[32:22] Maureen Sarma: One of my happiest, this is so simple, right? So we're on the grounds of this church and the children hear the bells. They hear the bells. They're on an automated chiming system, but there actually is a bell in the bell tower. And I remember saying to Deborah one day, why don't we just go and let them ring it? And we walked over and we found the rope and we let them line up. And I can't tell you how happy they were and how happy we were. I mean, they were being lifted up by the weight of the bell. And the teachers had to get in line and they had to pull it. I'll never forget the priest, Father Matt coming out, saying, what is going on? And we just all burst out laughing. And he burst out laughing, ultimately. And he just recognizes that there's so much in front of us, right? And those children still talk about that. I think kids talk about that. Do you remember, Miss Maureen? Do you remember when you let us ring the church bell? Right. Such a big sound for such a little person to make. Isn't it wonderful to feel powerful? Right.
[33:44] Deborah Coconis: I feel like every day there was some amazing teachable moment. There's so many. But I love that because we're in the village, we could physically connect ideas about community with these children by going on a walk, meeting the people in our neighborhood, helping out at the food pantry across the street, really hands on stuff. And that feeling of that's how Millbrook Community Preschool, that is our first lesson is that we are part of a community. Our school is a community. We're part of the community at Grace Church and then we're part of the community in the village of Millbrook and beyond. And our families are, too. And these are the people that we see in our neighborhood, right?
[34:39] Dr. Diane: Absolutely.
[34:39] Deborah Coconis: And getting to know them.
[34:42] Dr. Diane: I love that. When I remember those field trips, they would lead into the play centers as well. We would write letters that would go to senior citizens and we would take them down to the post office. And Miss Maureen, who worked at the post office, would show the kids where their letter was going. And then she would come up and she would actually sit and do circle time with the kids, and she would talk about what she did at the post office. And then they would have, as part of their stations, they would pretend to be post office workers for a while. And then there was another time that we had a mom who worked at the fire department. And so we would go down to the fire department or they'd come to us and they'd get to sit in the fire engines and they'd get to learn all about fire safety. And we were able to use all of those things, the bank, the dentist.
[35:33] Maureen Sarma: I felt so lucky as a parent being able to go on those field trips with you. And we continued to do them, they were so much fun.
[35:40] Dr. Diane: We had a zoo.
[35:41] Maureen Sarma: We had a zoo.
[35:45] Dr. Diane: Dr. T would come out every year with the animals, and then we would finish up the year at the Millbrook Zoo. What a great way for the kids to finish up that year of learning about animals by seeing how a zookeeper and his staff take care of them behind the scenes.
[36:01] Maureen Sarma: Yes, that's wonderful.
[36:03] Dr. Diane: There were so many just incredible moments like that. Although I think for me, those were all the big moments. And for me, I think the things I remember now as I look back are the small ones. They're the little things, like watching the children take the sensory table and build an Arctic scene and play with the animals and be able to teach each other about where the different animals went. I can still envision kids in the block center building mechanical dragons out of the big box. I remember the year that the preschool flooded and we had to move over to the rectory.
[36:41] Maureen Sarma: I've never seen a woman move as fast as Diane Schnoor emptying out a preschool.
[36:46] Dr. Diane: I can tell you, though, the year we flooded and we moved into the rectory for two months, it was so cozy. The basement was probably one of my very favorite moments at the preschool. I loved teaching in the rectory. It was a different way to do it. It happened to be our dinosaur unit. And so I have these fond, fond memories of filling that poor rectory with sand tables and measuring tools. We had a paleontology pit. We had a time when we literally measured from the kitchen all the way around out the back door to show how big an Apatosaurus was. And would an apatosaurus fit on the first floor of the rectory? I just remembered that we learned to go with the flow and use what we were given, and the kids did great with it.
[37:28] Maureen Sarma: Exactly.
[37:29] Dr. Diane: And the other thing I really loved about what we did is, we're talking about all these wonderful play-based things and following the child's lead. But I know, based on the PALS testing that we did every year, that our kids entered kindergarten able to read when they went to kindergarten. The bulk of our kids knew their letters, they knew their sounds, they had phonemic awareness, they had concept of word. And it wasn't done by doing this very strict, let's write an A, let's read an A. It was incorporating it into what we were doing and then playing with the letters and sounds during circle time and connecting it to their play and to everything else we were doing. And I thought, that's a powerful lesson, that you can have it all. You can have the academic piece and I'm putting that in quotes, but you can have the academic preschool readiness, the piece where you learn your letters, you learn your sounds, married happily to the exploration and the play.
[38:32] Maureen Sarma: Agree.
[38:34] Dr. Diane: But it's got to be done in a very intentional way, I think. So I want to kind of leave the conversation with a couple of other thoughts. I love to ask my guests what your favorite picture book was when you were a child. But I'm going to caveat that because you guys are early childhood educators. I want your favorite picture book when you were a child. But I also want a favorite picture book that you've either discovered reading to your own children or working at the preschool that you love to use.
[39:03] Maureen Sarma: Well, this is unconventional. So, Diane, you may remember that my father is from India. He's a Hindu from the south of India. So as a child, my favorite books were actually these incredibly violent comics of the Bhagavad Gita. So it was the epic cycles, right? So they were these wonderful stories, pictorial stories for children of the great epics. So I loved them. Having said that, I was also so fond of my golden books, and included with them were all the beautiful ones, like the Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, beautiful picture books. They're probably considered antiquated in many ways now, but I have such a fondness for them. So those would be my childhood books. Now school. I've been pigeonholed, Diane. I am the Pigeon Woman of the preschool now. I have been typecast as a teacher who only and exclusively reads Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems. And I have really discovered Mo, you know, with my own children. But that book in particular is just a favorite of the kids, and the teachers love to have me read that in character.
[40:38] Deborah Coconis: We request it.
[40:40] Maureen Sarma: I love the humor. I just love the simplicity.
[40:43] Dr. Diane: And so when you guys do Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, are there extensions that are added on to the story?
[40:52] Maureen Sarma: We just let it be for what it is? I don't think that there are. I think we pull that one out for just pure pleasure. And I think that is the objective in that moment is to laugh. And I think that that's okay.
[41:08] Deborah Coconis: We let the laughter continue.
[41:10] Maureen Sarma: Yes.
[41:12] Deborah Coconis: Oh, gosh. Well, for me, well, in addition to fairy tales, I loved all the fairy tales. The book that stands out for me is Tikki Tikki Tembo because of the illustrations. And as an adult, I worked in a studio. I was an apprentice in a mask making studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I had been going there for several months. And one weekend, the building, which also housed other artists’ studios, had an open studio weekend. And I walked in, and I saw one of the doors was open, and on the title on the door was the artist's name, and it was Blair Lent. And I was like, Blair Lent? And I walked in, and lo and behold, there is the illustrator of my favorite book from childhood who had been working in the same building as myself for who knows how long, and I had no idea. And I got to tell him that this was my favorite book because of the illustrations, and he signed a copy for me. So that book is near and dear to my heart. But as a preschool teacher, my favorite book also well, because of the story and the illustrations, is Julian is a Mermaid. I love that book by Jessica Love. It is a story of acceptance. And the illustrations are, they reach out and grab you. They are so colorful and brilliant. And, in fact, one of the things I did with the students over the years was we would choose a book or two a year that we really loved or that the illustrations were especially colorful, and we would create a mural based on a favorite scene in the book. And that mural, it would be a community project. I call it community. We would all work on it, and we would post it in the room where we would have circle time as a background. And there are so many great books, so many gosh, The Gruffalo and The Snowy Day.
[43:57] Deborah Coconis: And what is the one oh, you know, with the toadstools and the Chameleons? A Color of His Own by Leo Leoni. We did a couple of his murals from his book. And, of course, Eric Carle. We did The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
[44:21] Dr. Diane: You guys know my Eric Carle story, right?
[44:24] Deborah Coconis: I don't know.
[44:26] Dr. Diane: So this one's fresh in my mind because I'm teaching some freshmen this semester, and I just recently told this story, and it has a surprise ending that I didn't know, which I'll get to at the end. So Ella and the Eric Carle Museum are the same age. They were both born 20 years ago. She was not born in Amherst, Massachusetts, but the museum and my daughter are the same age, and she had to have been four or five. And we were up visiting the museum, and she's this little pipsqueak of a child. And it's one of my favorite museums on the face of this earth. If you have not been, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Art has a rotating collection of really diverse picture book artists, gorgeous exhibitions, always a standing gallery of Eric's work. And then there's a studio where kids can create and build as well as a library with story times. And there's like, a life size Hungry Caterpillar where you can take your picture. It's just a gorgeous, gorgeous place to be. Back in the day, Eric Carle would walk the halls occasionally at his museum and we had read a lot of Eric Carle books, and my daughter recognized Eric Carle from the back of the 10 Little Rubber Ducks one. He's got his beard, looks like him. She goes running up to him, and he picks her up. And I'm stunned. I actually don't even have my camera ready at this moment. I'm just looking, going, okay, Eric Carle's holding my kid. She throws her arms around him, and she licks him, and he very gently sets her down. He did not hold a grudge because later that day, when he was signing books, he actually drew this gorgeous caterpillar and butterfly in her copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar with his tongue out. Now, I'm telling the story to my freshman last week, and two of them raised their hand in the back of the room, and I look at them, and they go, I licked Eric Carle, too.
[46:36] Maureen Sarma: What?
[46:37] Dr. Diane: Yes. So my daughter evidently set a trend of children who licked poor Eric Carle. It's a wonder he continued to have signings.
[46:47] Deborah Coconis: Right, or pick children up.
[46:51] Dr. Diane: So there was just something fascinating about that beard, and they thought it was like cotton candy. But I thought about that every year at the preschool, because Eric Carle was one of those jumping off points. I know for me, I love doing author studies and spending a month just really exploring different authors and illustrators. And so Eric's books really filled that entomology niche and talking about insects. And so we would compare and contrast the different insects. We'd do the Grouchy Lady Bug. We'd do the Very Clumsy Click Beetle, The Very Quiet Cricket, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I remember the kids working collaboratively to do the giant caterpillar that somebody would get to take home at graduation. But I always thought about that story when we were doing it, just kind of with my daughter.
[47:41] Deborah Coconis: That is a surprise ending.
[47:42] Maureen Sarma: That is something.
[47:44] Dr. Diane: Yeah.
[47:45] Maureen Sarma: The poor man.
[47:47] Dr. Diane: So I guess the very last question I want to leave us with is, as you're thinking about adventures in learning and preschool, what are your hopes for early childhood education, for the future?
[48:01] Maureen Sarma: That's a big question, Diane.
[48:03] Dr. Diane: I like big questions.
[48:04] Maureen Sarma: It's a big question.
[48:11] Deborah Coconis: I would say I hope that children are allowed to act their age, to have the freedom to move about and interact with their friends and not always not have to sit still, be okay, to move and dance and be supported and respected by the adults around them. Always, to me, that's the most important, not to squash them.
[48:48] Maureen Sarma: Not to snuff out their fire. Right? So something I'm always conscious of, and I tried to be conscious of it as a parent, I think it was probably better as a teacher, is just we are a people under incredible pressure. I don't think it's ever been more pronounced than it is right now. And childhood is such a tender time. I remember my incredibly wise father telling me that his mother once said that adults are children's worst enemies. They can be. And taking that and really contemplating how precious this time is. So before you interact with a young, innocent child, to check anything that's burdening you at the door, and never to make a child feel ashamed for just say, acting their age for a silly thought or comment, things that we perceive as trivial or irrelevant, I think that not to shame children. I think just not to quench that fire, because when their spirit is left intact, then they can flourish, right? We want them to flourish. We don't want them to survive. We want them to soar.
[50:07] Dr. Diane: And I think, I hope for me, that as we look at early childhood, we respect those who are in early childhood because they are superheroes in so many ways. It's one of the hardest jobs out there, and it's one of the most glorious as well. And I would say, within that, to respect the child and to realize that you've got this wonderful opportunity in all that you're sharing, whether it's the books, whether it's the activities, whether it's the play, you've got this wonderful opportunity to open worlds and to build empathy from the ground up, to build respect for cultural differences and to celebrate that diversity. I mean, I think preschool, that's the place it starts. We build that empathy in preschool, right? And it carries through for a lifetime.
[51:00] Deborah Coconis: It does. The lessons learned in preschool are lifetime. They are lessons, including the friendships, those connections, and it's just such a valuable thing.
[51:13] Maureen Sarma: Oh, it is. We all have, like, a moral obligation to get it right. Anybody who has a stake in this field, we need to get it right. We need to reflect on our own practice and be okay with not having done great, but do better tomorrow. Just really strive and support each other, lift your colleagues up. I think that's so important.
[51:41] Deborah Coconis: I just want to give a shout out to the families that I've met through the preschool for really caring so much for their children and respecting us as teachers, especially the past couple of years since the pandemic. Unanimously, I’ve heard from every parent that they just wanted their child to play at school, to be with their peers, and they see the value in that. I mean, they know that they're learning because we're providing a rich environment for that. That's a given, right? We prove that every day. But they see the value and how they interact with the subject matter or whatever it is that we are offering them and with each other.
[52:39] Dr. Diane: Maureen and Deborah, it has been such a delight to have you on today's episode of Adventures in Learning. I feel like I've gotten some soul medicine today as we've talked about what makes early childhood work. And I'm just grateful for the many generations of kids who have had the opportunity to experience the love and the nurture that you all have provided.
[53:02] Maureen Sarma: Well, thank you for setting it all in motion, Diane, because you are thought of every day, and the legacy of your hard work is evident. I couldn't have done that without you.
[53:17] Deborah Coconis: No, Diane laid the foundation, and we were able to grow.
[53:21] Dr. Diane: You guys built it to incredible heights, so I'm very grateful for that. And I love getting to come back and play occasionally.
[53:28] Deborah Coconis: Isn't that nice?
[53:29] Maureen Sarma: Yeah.
[53:32] Dr. Diane: You've been listening to the Adventures and Learning podcast with your host, Dr. Diane. If you like what you're hearing, please subscribe, download and let us know what you think, and please tell a friend. If you want the full show notes and the pictures, please go to drdianeadventures.com. We look forward to you joining us on our next adventure.