5 Overvalued Signs of a Good Preschool Classroom


With the start of school, I have had many conversations with parents who are visiting preschools for the first time or looking for recommendations from other parents.


Parents may look for and want very different things from programs. Some may have a general desire for their child to learn about science and math, while others may look forward to hanging some of their child’s art on the fridge. In either case, parents may look for things in the program that are not really useful things from which to judge a classroom.


Here is my list of five things parents look for in a good classroom that are really not helpful ways to critique a classroom.


5. A good director means a good classroom. A good director is absolutely essential, but parents all too often meet with the director and assume that the eloquently described practices are the run of the school. And while that is the case in many schools, it is also JUST as important to meet the specific teacher. A teacher should be able to simply and confidently explain the practices of the school and speak of those practices in alignment with the director.


4. A blue, yellow, and red classroom is a good children’s space.  Somehow, primary colors have come to dominate early childhood classrooms. From rugs to chairs, many ECE classrooms are doused in these three colors.  These brightly colored rooms have come to be what many think of when they think of when they envision a good ECE classroom.




More and more, preschool classrooms are moving away from functional looks and evolving to more home-like settings, with muted colors and less stimulating decor.  Some parents may feel that natural wood furniture and muted colors aren’t fun or are too boring, but just the opposite is often true. As children are spending many of their waking hours in ECE programs, ECE professionals are acknowledging that children need spaces that are calming, comforting, and evoke feelings of home.  Of all the many children’s rooms I’ve seen “pinned” for their creativity and beauty, none of them have ever been primarily RED, YELLOW, and BLUE.



A good classroom should feel like a good place to be, instead of an overwhelming, overstimulating hodgepodge of bright colors.


3. The more toys the better. A good school will have safe and interesting things for children to play with. A classroom with buckets upon buckets of toys may keep children entertained, but an overstimulating environment can also overwhelm. A few well-chosen toys based on the abilities and interests of the children is more valuable than wall-to-wall toys any day of the week.


A good classroom will have toys stored away, and rotate toys in based on the curriculum and children’s interests.


2. No art coming home is unusual/worrisome.  In the early years of school-based education, it is not always easy to get accurate or detailed accounts on how our children spend their days. Very often, the first words uttered when asked about a child’s day are, “I don’t know.”


Parents are often eager to reunite with them and hear about how they spent their days. At the end of the day, we as parents are looking for a way to connect to our children.  Besides being a starting point for conversation, artifacts such as art or other projects are evidence that our children spent time in some sort of meaningful activity.


Lots of art coming home can feel like evidence that our children are learning, playing, and, more specifically – doing something at school. When children spend their day dressing up, playing outside, helping to cook, or singing songs, the evidence of their learning and time well-spent is not as easy for us to see, especially when they can not yet talk about it.


And finally, number one. Though this is not something I have ever heard a parent say exactly, parents have expressed how important traditional academic materials are to them.


1. An alphabet on the wall (or rug) means my child will learn the things that matter. This may sound silly to some, but I have been asked while giving a school tour why we didn’t have an alphabet on our classroom walls. Academic information like alphabets, calendars, and word charts are very often things that adults look for in classrooms.


Are these types of posters or rugs really intended to teach children, or are they simply decoration?


If they are intended to teach, I say . . .


ABC posters cause me to wonder, are these educators able to take children’s perspectives?  Any information that you as an adult have to look up to see is not going to be seen, much less learned, by a very young child who learns best by having materials in hand. Was this environment prepared with children in mind, or simply by traditional standards?


Charts and posters are not the only ways in which children learn this type of information. I’d go even farther and argue it is also not the best way for them to learn the alphabet either. If you’d like to know how children learn the alphabet or about the passage of time (e.g., days of the week) in the classroom and don’t see these things around, ask the teacher. The best classrooms make children’s learning visible to parents by the use photographs or notes in newsletters or on bulletin boards.


And if these posters are intended for decoration, I say . . .  see number 4.


What do you look for in an early childhood education classroom? What types of things don’t matter to you?




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Observation and Answers

In the early years, our children ask questions regarding  . . . well, just about everything.  We answer their questions – sometimes only as best we can – and are happy to help them get those answers they seek. However, when children only look to adults for the answers, they continue to be dependent on us.


How else can we help children develop skills to find their own answers?


On this morning, Greysen told me that she needed a stop light for her block road and small cars. I suggested she make one. On any other day, she would have scribbled something and anointed it “stop light” but not that day. This time, she replied that she did not know what one looked like. I told her that I knew where she could see the one for herself so she could then make one. I decided to act as her guide rather than the expert.




Research.  Whenever possible, we use references such as photos or books to look for the answers to her questions. I answer her questions, but I also offer her the means by which she can look for the answer herself. On this day, a short walk took us to our reference point.


toddler drawing


Drawing by Reference. I invited her to draw something to remember the lights by.  She repeatedly looked to over to the light as she drew.


Emergent literacy


As we walked home, she noticed another type of traffic sign and drew this as well.  I had no expectations nor did I give her directions on how to draw it. The drawing was incidental to what she was beginning to understand about herself – she could replicate in drawing things she sees. She was creating a reference.


emergent literacy2


Once home, she cut out her image and together we taped it to a block to be used in her play.


I thought she may be as excited as I that she was able to create something she could use in her play, but instead of pride or excitement, she only showed focus.  She continued her play and used the light as she had originally intended.


In Reggio Emilia, Art Materials Does Not Equate An Art Experience.  Even though she was using colored pencils for her drawing, this was not an art experience – at least not as we think of them at home.  Her efforts were purposeful. Her drawings? An extension of her building play rather than a form of  creative expression.


Access to materials (e.g., art or building) and time to play are the means by which children learn skills such as researching, referencing, and self-reliance.  I’d like to include other ways for the girls to find their own answers aside from video, which I think they are still young for. If you use other resources, I’d love to hear about them. 







Letting Go of My Inner Parenting Snob




I’m not sure when it was that I first felt like a parent. I don’t think it was during pregnancy. I think the feeling settled in sometime after she was born and I was feeding and changing this small person, my daughter.


At the time, being a parent was about the relationships between the two of us. This often idyllic, sometimes confusing relationship between her and I was how I defined parenthood.


Our twosome soon expanded. Not by plan or design, but in time. We joined other children and parents at playgroups, at the park, at the library, etc. I came to know other children and care for them and their parents.


My definition of parenthood was being rewritten.


In the first years, I seldom meet other parents that thought like I did. I proudly wore my decisions and efforts as a parent like a badge of gentle parenting. I was quick to see differences and to write off others for their parenting decisions, until one play date with the “anti-me.” I realized that I was reserving that gentleness that I kept for my daughter for only other like-minded parents, instead of all parents.


Comrades. My friend Michelle sometimes calls us parents “comrades” in e-mails. This is the perfect reminder that we, as parents, are all in this together.


Committing to gentle, respectful, deliberate, intentional parenting – or however you refer to it – means embracing  principles and applying them broadly to humanity, not just your child. Ideas like respect, listening, and encouragement are avenues to building relationships with our children because we see them as people. Why, then, is it so much more challenging to extend these practices to other adults?


Abusive parenting aside, there are few parenting decisions that really cause a great divide between other parents and I. We may not feed our children the same way or discipline them using the same principles, but I’ve come to learn that parents whom I have encountered negotiate their decisions the same as I do.


There are parenting principles that I hold dear, but most of these decisions are not more important to me than the parent behind them.


Our relationships as parents are broader than those between ourselves and our children. To truly cultivate authentic children, they must see in us that which we expect of them.

Parenting Styles Do Not Define the Parent



Toddler in Garden


As a stay at home parent, I try to balance my kids having time at home and time with family and friends. To broaden our social circle, I joined a parenting group after my daughter’s birth.  While the group was mostly positive, I had some unforgettable negative experiences. I felt out-of-sync when it came to relating to the other parents. No one was familiar with RIE or Reggio Emilia, which were the two philosophies that were guiding our parenting decisions.  In my daughter’s second year, I considered starting a parenting group based on my parenting practices and values rather than continuing on in the community based one I belonged to.


After researching and contacting a holistic parenting group (which seemed fantastic), I decided against it.


The more I got to know the other group members, the more I could relate to them as parents. I learned that the parents I admired most were the ones that based their parenting decisions on how they impacted their children. It wasn’t the conversations about baby-led weaning or cloth diapering – things that I continue to highly value –  that I ended up needing. Rather, it was the good-natured, child-focused parents that reminded me of the kind of parent that I want to be. They are my greatest supporters – even if only by example.



I have met some wonderful moms and dads whose love for their children is blinding. From the father who plays ring-around-the-rosie with his two year-old daughter for the eighth time despite the scorching heat, to the mother who chooses not to attend a good friend’s party because her son would be overstimulated by the chaos that is essentially a bounce house discotheque, they have helped me see the kind of parent I want to be.


I expected to need other adults in our life – especially other parents – so that I could have someone to bounce ideas off of and help me work through parenting struggles. What I didn’t expect was the impact other adults have had on my daughters’ greater sense of belonging.





I have come to rely on the other adults in our lives to be part of my children’s understanding of this world.


I rely on other parents – especially those in my parenting group – to share who they are and what they know with my daughters. The parents who garden, for example, are passionate and knowledgeable about their craft. They have shared their expertise and their veggies. They have found a way for those of us less capable to still share in these experiences.


I think that it is the other parents in my children’s lives that have contributed to developing a healthy sense of trust in others. Parents who have taken the time to get down at eye level with my daughter to read her a book, or demonstrated how to finger knit, have contributed to her burgeoning sense of confidence. Based on her experiences, Greysen expects adults to be responsive to what she has to say. I credit those adults with instilling her with the confidence to order her own food when we are out, or ask questions to museum docents, business owners, and other adults we interact with in the world at large.


My daughters are as eager to see the other adults at playgroups as they are to see their peers.  Greysen, in fact, asks for them by name. Whether these adults eat organically or co-sleep is irrelevant in my daughter’s eyes. It is the generosity of their time, their respect for children’s ideas, and the gentleness of their hearts that draw my children in.


And so, I have surround myself with other parents. All types of parents. I’ve learned not to exclude myself from relationships based on parenting choices, but rather to look at their capacity to give of themselves by sharing their passions and spirit with my children. That is the world of adults I want my children to know.


Color Mixing is Not Always About Color




Though incredibly simple, color-mixing is one of my favorite experiences to offer infants and toddlers.


Water in itself is wonderful because it is such a basic element that children are familiar with, yet are still fascinated by – I assume for its complex properties and seemingly unpredictable nature when splashed or spilled.


Even though this is color mixing, I do not see this as a lesson about learning colors. As I observed the girls playing, it became clear to me that their play was largely about consequence. That is, they were using materials as if they were asking themselves the question, “What will happen if …?”


This is not a novel activity for my daughters and is, in fact, something we have done a couple of times before. Even though this was a repeated experience, I did not make much effort to add a lot of novelty. As I’ve mentioned before, I intentionally repeat art experiences and activities, and this was no exception.


The one element I did change was to use red and blue watercolor instead of our usual yellow and blue experiences.





Each used the same squeeze bottles in ways which challenged them. Though both girls squeezed, Moon was focused on exploring concepts of pressure while Greysen was interested in quantity and how that correlated to the measurements on the outside of the bottle.




The results were more varied than I expected.





The next time we mix colors, we will use jars so that we can save the colors they mix to paint with.  We ended up with a few random artifacts in the colors so we didn’t save any of them for later use this time.


Writing Area




With a small living space, we need to prioritize what children’s materials we keep out. We keep books on a low shelf and have a building area in one corner, but couldn’t really spare any more space. Greysen has been asking to write and draw, so it seemed time to make a dedicated space that she, and soon her sister, could access as they pleased.


I wanted a space that Greysen could get to but Moon could not – she still needs to be supervised when using scissors, and I wouldn’t want her to get a hold of the stapler either.


First I tried pencil boxes, then a tray, but neither were available enough – nor did they stay organized. I emptied my wrapping paper drawer and arranged a portion of their materials for them. Writing_Area_88


The drawer is at the perfect height so that Greysen may reach it, but Moon can not.




I kept to just a few things so that it would be easier for the girls to keep organized. The main art cabinet is the large one above (top picture).  All of these are familiar materials to Greysen. She knows which markers work on the transparency and which will not.  She can not work the stapler on her own yet, but since she handles it carefully I feel safe leaving it in here.


Ideally, Moon would have access to some crayons and paper at least, but I haven’t figured out where to keep that yet. This table is about three feet across from the girls’ play kitchen, so we keep it clear so that it can serve whatever play they are engaged in.


The girls are writing and drawing on a regular basis now. They’re loving this new space.




When Toddlers Take Toys From Others




Toddlers negotiate the use of toys in any number of ways.  Many times they work things out themselves, finding a way for disagreements to become absorbed into the very nature of the play.


Not all instances are so readily resolved, especially when one child takes a toy away from another and that child shows strong feelings about it.


I don’t consider wanting a toy that another child is playing with selfish or inconsiderate, but rather natural when you consider what happens to a toy another child has.


When a child picks up a toy, it becomes:
Animated. A toy that a may have otherwise gone unnoticed is now moving.
Interesting. Someone may play with it in ways that haven’t occurred to the child before. Watching someone else play may spark an idea that feels urgent to implement.
Demonstrative of Possibilities. Watching someone play with a toy can bring its potential into reality.


This summer my daughters have started to play with one another. These moments are still brief, but they are new to their relationship and carry with them a whole new need to negotiate.


Unlike other turn-taking or shared use scenarios, this situation seems to escalate more than others.  Older sister (3 years) is using a toy. Younger sister (2 years) takes toy (and usually runs away to avoid it being taken back). Older sister yelps that younger sister is not listening to her and chases younger sister (who is usually laughing at this hilarious game she thinks they are both playing).


Rather than taking the toy away from both children (teaching children to not take toys away by taking toys away) OR
asking them to use their words, I’ve been modeling the waiting hand.


The gesture of holding out my hand, palm facing up, and waiting for the toy to be returned has worked wonders in modeling a peaceful solution. This strategy for working together toward harmonious play has been becoming a part of my daughters’ repertoire.


There is something calming about this simplistic “less is more” strategy. I think that using this gesture allows me to maintain my composure and not be distracted by the need to find words.  Best of all, 9 times out of 10, sister gives it back when she’s ready, without further incident.


This gesture is also empowering for young children who may not yet be able to speak, but are interested in using a toy that another child is playing with. The inclusion of this into the children’s play has helped them learn to trust each other just a little bit more, and given them one more tool to work with toward resolving their disagreements on their own.



Adult Influence on Children’s Creative Play




Last fall, my daughter made this turkey (pictured right) in school. She was quite proud of it, and very specifically explained which parts she did and which parts her teacher did. She happily indicated where her teacher placed a few feathers and adjusted the eyes. Although I was slightly bummed that what my daughter perceived as her own work wasn’t really hers, I shrugged off the experience.


Recently, Greysen wanted a “bird” that she could perch on her finger. I offered watercolor paper (for its rigidity), and she chose a dark-colored marker to draw it. I also suggested pipe cleaners as a possible way to hold the bird in place atop her fingers.  Again, my daughter perceived the work entirely as her own and was proud of the way the bird looked in the end.


Two very different creatures, both made with care, intention, and pride. What’s the difference to the child?


The Turkey Takeover Versus the Helpful Resource
Ok, the turkey project was not taken over, but it was entirely teacher directed. Greysen’s project was, in part, done for her, with materials not chosen by her. The adult gave instruction on where aesthetic pieces should be placed, influencing the overall appearance of this craft.  Aside from its distinct beak, her turkey was nearly identical to the rafter of turkeys it dried alongside atop the kitchen table.


In the second scenario, my intention was to serve as a resource to my daughter. Having knowledge of materials that she was unfamiliar with, I suggested the use of pipe cleaners, as well as stiff paper to support her ideas. All other aesthetic choices were hers.


I refrained from suggesting the use of additional colors or materials, even though we have potentially “bird-ish” materials such as faux feathers and yellow pipe cleaners.


In the end, it is irrelevant whether it looks like a bird to anyone else to her. After all, she was the one who was going to use it.


Product versus process and craft versus open-ended conversations aside, an adult’s role during the creative process can teach children something about adults’ roles in their lives. Children will learn that adults can and should direct them at times. However, we also need opportunities for adults to prove themselves to be resources too. We can show children that we believe in their ideas just as they are and do not need to “fix” or outline their play step-by-step.


Play is the place for children to try out their ideas, to make two-dimensional black birds with unattached claws, or towers that will tumble, or marble runs that won’t work. The pride they feel when their bird is done, or their tower stacked, will persist rather than diminish as it may as they age and come to realize the adult’s role in their work. By supporting a child as they create, we also have a chance to support a child’s self-satisfaction and promote feelings of competence.




June Art Group




I am eager to host an art group around one theme of materials. I think offering one material in combination with several other art mediums or to be used as several different tools would encourage the children to imagine more possibilities per object.


For instance, I’d like to host a reflective surfaces art group. As usual, I could not wait and offered the group this “paper” for painting. It as close to a mirror as any material I’ve ever seen.




One of my co-hosts brought homemade paste which the girls were compelled to stir.




Cornstarch and water, a staple in our art groups for the infants that attend, is colored with beet juice this time around.




Finally, I set up foil on easels as a fourth option. I typically offer 4 different experiences (this time 2 of the 4 were provided by friends) for a group of about 10 to 15 infants and toddlers.


Despite the slight night before prep frenzy, art in the park is one of my favorite things we do all month.


Eating Outdoors





The girls have free access to our yard, but for reasons unknown to me, Greysen has been disinterested in playing outside lately.


So on this day, when they were toes deep in mud and muck and I didn’t want to pull them inside to eat lunch, I grabbed a bit of food and brought it outside to the girls.


This unusual departure from our lunch routine was just the break the girls needed to keep them playing. Their food may have been a little crunchy from their not-so-clean-hands, but they didn’t mind.




Right back to play! Eating outside has been just the thing to keep the girls looking forward to heading outside and keeping them playing.

Picnics are a regular part of our lives, but spontaneous outdoor lunches definitely need a place too.