My Favorite “Learning” Toys in our House #TeacherMom

What do you think of when someone says, “educational toy?”

Google certainly advertises what many of us imagine: 

But the toys that bring the richest learning to my children look nothing like this. The toys that make them think, that invite them to talk out their thinking, that spark make-believe play — they look much less, well, educational. 

Especially since reading this article on the site Zero to Three about characteristics of toys for toddlers that are rich in learning (featuring qualities like open-ended-ness and problem-solving), I’ve been thinking about what exactly these toys look like for kids, (not to mention with this holiday season upon us). 

So today’s post is a reflection on which toys promote the richest play for my kids (aged 8, 4, & 2), and why. Different toys will appeal to different children for a variety of reasons, but there are certainly some universal lessons on play to be found in the why. So let’s dive in!

#1: Loose Parts box

How it’s packed with learning: In addition to being a great tactile experience — the kids love the rough and smooth wood grains, the woven coasters, and the silky scarf — these objects provide endless possibility for play. One day, it’s a kitchen set, and the next, it’s a zoo. 

#2: Animals set

How it’s packed with learning: These animals feature in much of my kids’ make-believe play. Special favorites are the ones that include a baby and parent. This is definitely a toy that grows with kids, delighting a broad range of ages. 

#3: Lock box

How it’s packed with learning: Problem-solving skills abound with this toy. Particularly since there are 3 compartments inside in which to stash all sorts of treasures.

#4: Magnetic tiles set

How it’s packed with learning: I am amazed at the creativity these tiles elicit. Rockets, houses, buses, even “gift boxes” are constructed and reconstructed each day. I like the way it requires geometric problem-solving as well. 

#5: Go Fish card game

How it’s packed with learning: This is a beloved game for all of our kids. Even though the youngest doesn’t quite understand it, he loves to instruct adults to “go fish” and watch them comply. I also like that there’s opportunity for literacy building with the labeled pictures. 

#6: Play-Doh

How it’s packed with learning: The sensory experiences, creativity, and fine motor skills development are endless. Especially when we add a few tools, like these play scissors and a rolling pin. 

#7: Play Tunnel

How it’s packed with learning: In addition to the physical activity this tunnel provides, it also lends itself to a great deal of large-scale make-believe play in fort-building and playing house. 

This last bonus photo was at the 4 year-old’s request when he saw me taking pictures of all his favorite toys. It just goes to show how you never know what kids will treasure!


Engaging play facilitates powerful learning. What toys spark this for your kids? 

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What Matters Most to YOU About your Child’s School Experience? #TeacherMom

Much of what I write here comes down to this question. But when it came down answering it directly for an interview for my cousin’s class, I was surprised at how difficult it was to decide.

What matters most to me? Really, no less than a preservation of my child’s humanity. Her empathy. Her creativity. Her curiosity. Because only when she finds meaning for herself will the learning follow.

Cultivating humanity exists in the small details. Non-examples include choices such as:

  • assigning worksheets that are excessive or developmentally inappropriate and then faulting children for being inattentive
  • focusing more on the data and products than on the child
  • consistently depending on extrinsic incentives instead of choosing to have the harder, ongoing conversations about broader, more intrinsic values

Examples include:

  • honoring students’ agency by inviting them to the planning table for their own learning
  • proactively working to communicate with families, not because we want behavior conversations to be less awkward, but because we want families to know we truly care about their children
  • trusting students to monitor their own bathroom use

These are the kinds of approaches that send a clear message to students: you are valued. Your voice matters. You bring something unique to our group that cannot be replicated.

These messages matter not only for the sake of individual wellness (which is a worthy goal in itself), but for the sake of our collective future in an increasingly automated world. Realizing that “human beings are our most valuable resource” (as referenced in the recent article, “Educator: In Finland, I realized how ‘mean-spirited’ the U.S. education system really is”) should be of utmost importance in meeting the needs of the individual and the whole.  (see also the great video Adam Hill shared in his post, “What are Soft Skills & Why do Students Need them More than Ever?“)

Going back to that interview, other questions posed included:

  • What matters most to your child when they go to school?
  • What is the most important quality for a classroom teacher to possess?
  • What makes you the most nervous about sending your child to school?
  • If your child misbehaves, how would you hope the teacher handles it?
  • What rules are the most important for teachers to have?
  • How should teachers best communicate with parents in regards to their child’s behavior?

What might happen if we use these kinds of questions as conversation-starters between teachers and families? How might collaborating to figure out what we hope school will accomplish impact our communities? And most importantly, how might seeking for understanding and connection help us cultivate humanity on the scale of the both the individual and the whole?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Lessons from filming our bike ride to the library #TeacherMom

I recently decided to film our weekly bike ride to the library. My 8 year-old was out of school for the holiday, so she is featured in the video as my boys were behind me in our trailer. Conscious of the need for others to gain insight on what it’s like to take another form of transportation, I shared this with my local community.

The overall response was positive and encouraging. But perhaps because my daughter was the only one of the four of us visible in the video, I was surprised to find that much of the conversation rested on her. I know now there were a lot of raised eyebrows at the sight of “this young girl biking in town.”

As usual, my reflections have brought me here. I’ve been thinking about some of the lessons through this experience, especially concerning how we view what kids are capable of.

#1: Sometimes, shielding kids from one risk leads to other dangers

When one person expressed fear at the sight of what they viewed to be such a risk, I responded by explaining our biking experience and how I know my daughter’s familiarity with the rules and her capacity to follow them.

I went on to explain that riding our bikes is a way to integrate physical activity into our day, which helps address serious risks associated with inactivity like heart disease and depression (noting also that the rising generation is the first projected to have a shorter lifespan than the previous generation for this reason). Of course, riding in traffic is scarier and we do avoid it when possible (and we work to advocate for better infrastructure that makes biking more comfortable for families).

We need to be careful not to shield kids so thoroughly from one risk that we open them up to others that are just as, if not more, threatening.

#2: One person’s “brave” is another person’s normal 

back when she was young enough for the seat! Baby brother snugly tucked in the baby carrier.

A very common response was, “Wow, you guys are so brave!” While I am very proud of my daughter for riding, I know that this is less about courage and more about capacity and experience. She has been riding with me since she she was just a year old; this is our normal. Which is the point. We want to normalize an active lifestyle so she can carry habits into her future that will allow her to have a high quality life.

Focusing on how brave something looks can detract from how doable it really is. That’s not to say it doesn’t require courage to start, but we can be emboldened in knowing we are not alone!

#3: We shouldn’t focus so much on what needs improvement that it intimidates people from joining in 

Even when I was editing the video and adding music, I was mindful to try achieve a delicate balance between conveying what we love about our active lifestyle and ways we can make it safer. I didn’t want it to seem so upbeat that it made people think there aren’t any issues to address, but I didn’t want to be so serious that it scares people away.

To me, all this comes back to the classroom in so many ways. I feel like Sam Sherratt captured it nicely in his recent tweet on learning from Reggio Emilia teachers:

When they are given the support they need, kids truly are capable of so much! We can encourage them to be knowledgeable risk-takers. We can help normalize positive habits. We can acknowledge and work on issues without allowing them to keep us away. All of this requires a lot of work, imagination, and letting go, but ultimately, it is our children and students who benefit from being empowered to take care of themselves and live life to the fullest.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

5 Opportunities When We Let Them Teach

The first portion of my 8 year-old’s parent teacher conference a couple weeks ago was student-led, during which she was able to share her desire to be given serious responsibilities. As a result, her wonderful teacher allowed her to teach a math lesson.

She came home brimming with pride–and with a new career aspiration. And I’ve been reflecting on the this ever since. I know that when I was teaching myself, I did not often provide these experiences, which is why I greatly admire teacher like:

I’m looking forward to implementing student-led workshops and lessons more frequently when I return to the classroom! Meanwhile, some benefits I’ve been able to see just from my daughter’s experience include the following.

Opportunity #1: Helps take down “secret teacher business”

The idea of dismantling “secret teacher business” has been thrilling and fascinating to me ever since my introduction via Edna Sackson’s blog. Allowing students to teach gives them insight on the bigger picture of school–the curricula, the planning, the constraints–which in turn can bring greater ownership and sense of purpose.

Opportunity #2: Helps them develop empathy

Among all the positive aspects of teaching, my daughter also observed, “Some kids were not very respectful.” When students are given the opportunity to direct the classroom, they gain new insight on what an enormous task this can be. While this should not be the only reason we pursue student-led endeavors, it’s certainly a wonderful benefit when students learn to see their teachers as human beings, too.

Opportunity #3: Helps them process learning in a new way

My daughter taught a lesson on rounding using a variety of strategies. This was a math topic she loved, but approaching it from a teacher’s perspective required her to use speaking & listening skills, in addition to her mathematical processing skills.

Opportunity #4: Helps them learn to take ownership

Especially when students are offered the chance to teach about a variety of concepts (including offering “non-academic” workshops), they can share in the learning plans. I especially love all the descriptions of teachers who allow students to opt-in to sessions, resulting a group of learners who actually chose to be there and learn that content.

Opportunity #5: Confidence-building

I loved the student feedback in Mindy’s post linked above. Especially:

student comment via blog by Mindy Slaughter

Student-led lessons are just another facet of cultivating student agency in our classrooms. What other benefits have you observed?

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featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

7 Ways to Communicate We Care About At-Home Reading–Without Reading Logs

Last week, I wrote about my experience in which my 8 year-old questioned my ethics of signing off on her reading log all at once each week. Olwen, a friend in my PLN, responded,

To me, this really captures what most of us hope to convey about reading at home. But, as Olwen states, having them track their reading in a log at home can send the wrong message. Others commented describing how reading logs encouraged their children to read for the required time — and then not a minute after.

This post is about finding better ways to send the important message that you care about at-home reading — without the unpleasant side-effects reading logs can bring.

#1: Share your Goodreads lists: Post it on your class social media accounts, send texts with Remind with the link, send home the shortened link in a paper flyer. Many parents want your recommendations anyway. But if you really publicize books you love, families will definitely receive the message that you care about reading.

#2: Post a “What I’m reading” outside your door (and periodically share on class blog or social media). Great way to help with your own reading accountability, too! Perhaps you can even see if a student will accept a classroom job of reminding you and updating the title for you.

#3: Participate in #ClassroomBookADay (and periodically post a photo on class blog or social media). This is one of the top 5 ideas I’m dying to implement when I return to the classroom. Click the photo below for details!

via Nerdy Book Club

#4: Participate in Global Read AloudWorld Read Aloud Day, and similar events. And invite parents! I still remember the mom who would come every year on our school’s annual read-a-thon day to tell us the story of Brer Rabbit.

#5: Connect your students to local library resources. Does your library offer services through apps like Hoopla or Libby? Does it host special events that will be of interest to your students? Do they hold storytimes available for younger siblings? Do a little research and help make your students’ families aware of opportunities and updates.

#6: Connect them to audiobooks! Share your recommendations for apps and resources to help them get stories on devices at home. Some current favorites include:

  • Storyline Online is a big favorite around here since it shows the pictures of our favorite picture books while a celebrity reads. Free app on Apple, Android, and Chrome.
  • Khan Academy Kids offers their own line of stories, readers, animal books, and more. Free on Apple, Android, and Amazon appstore.
  • Fairy Tales is a free app, but you have to buy coins to access most of the books. Might be worth investigating, however, as they are fun interactive versions of beloved fairy tales.
  • Libby & Hoopla are especially wonderful options if your library pays for the subscription.

#7: Make reading the only homework. There is substantial evidence that there is little positive effect (and possibly negative effect) of homework for elementary ages. In lieu of worksheets and papier-mâché projects, make your only “assignment” to read. DO avoid attaching a minimum number of minutes required, but DON’T be afraid to inform parents of the effects of consistent reading. If you share information like the one below, be sure to assure parents that it’s really less about the 20 minutes and more about cultivating a lifelong reader (and that holding a hard line on reading can be counter-productive). 

There are many other ways to help convey to students’ families that you value reading at home. Maybe if you already do a monthly newsletter, maybe start including a reading highlight with a simple tip or recommendation. If you already have a class Facebook account, maybe set reminders to yourself to share what you’re reading there every couple weeks. Keep it simple, find what works best for you, and center the message on the reading itself.

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featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

In Which the 8 Year-Old Questions My Reading Log Ethics #TeacherMom

Pernille Ripp’s recent revisit on reading logs reminded me about a conversation I recently had with my 8 year-old. She watched me sign the reading log like I always do: scribbling 20 minutes for each day all at once and adding my signature.

Her: “Is that cheating?”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Her: “Like, we don’t write down exactly how many minutes I read each day.”

Me: “No, it’s not cheating. You read at least this much every week.”

This was the end of my rushed explanation that morning, but I knew it wouldn’t satisfy her for long. Sure enough, the next time I went to sign, she inquired again. This time, I turned it back to her:

Me: “Right now, you love to read. We read during breakfast, at bedtime, and lots in between. How do you think it would effect how you feel about reading if we were always tracking every minute you read? If I was always asking whether you’d gotten up to 20 yet? If I was always telling you to set a timer and write it down?”

Her: “I don’t think I would enjoy that. I just want to read!”

She just wants to read. And don’t want to get in the way of that!

We further discussed how in the rare event that she does read fewer than 20 minutes in a day, it is not worth discouraging her overall love of reading. She now understands that my scribbled 20 minutes a day actually is, in fact, about maximizing her reading — both the quantity and the quality of her time spent.

At this point, some teachers might be thinking, “Well, that works fine if they actually read. What if they don’t?” To this, I would definitely recommend reading Pernille’s post to which I linked at the top — she has a great list of accountability strategies that help her know whether her kids are reading.

I myself used to think that reading logs were a great way to remind kids to read at home. Now I know that they can create obstacles that stand in the way of reading itself. I’m grateful for the lesson, and hope it will help me more thoroughly assess future strategies.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What the computer assessment doesn’t know about what my preschooler knows #TeacherMom

Turns out my son loves the online preschool we signed up for this year. And I’m glad. Not out of relief that I don’t have to coax him (I was definitely prepared to drop it in a heartbeat before I ever used one of those motivational badges they mail out). But because it’s simply a pleasure to watch him enjoy learning.

He loves the the dancing letters, the rhymes, the songs.

But there is one thing that he does not enjoy: the tests. In fact, I recently watched him go through a brief alphabet assessment, clicking the bottom right choice for every single letter.

The program seems unable to detect the growth I perceive. After all, its assessment does not know…

…that he loves to practice making letters with his body.

…that he walks around sounding out the phonemes for various objects around the house.

…that he often turns his toys into letters or numbers and eagerly shows them to me.

…that he is actually starting to read (he seems to know the sounds letters make better than the names of the letters themselves).

So no matter how slowly the charts might curve upward on his data reports, I know the truth that more is happening than is being measured.

The fact remains that tests simply can’t pick up on growth indicators that trained humans can. We must be careful not to place too much weight (and certainly not too much anxiety regarding our kids’ growth) in what those computers “know.” Focus instead on emphasizing the learning you observe!