By Cheryl Ichikawa
I watched a child climb up on a stationary mushroom, like she had done many times before. But this time, she didn’t want my help. As she stood there looking at the ground below, her arms stretched out to the sides to help her find her balance, she suddenly leaned forward, looking like she might fall. I took a step toward her and put out my hand. She looked at me with determined eyes as she motioned for me to stand back. She surveyed the area to make sure no one would interrupt her descent. She began to bend her knees, then her arms, and then she clenched both fists. She was ready to take flight. She took one more look at the ground, scooting her feet to the edge of the mushroom, and then…she jumped. Landing with both feet on the ground, the child’s face beamed with pride. She did it! She did it all by herself! No longer will she need help from a teacher to jump off of that mushroom.
A child’s work is in the experiences that happen during play. In those moments, children learn about themselves and the world around them. They discover how things work. They test limits, explore ideas and engage in interactive play. In those moments, when children learn that they are capable of doing something they have never done before, their world shifts to a new, exciting, limitless realm of discovery. They become more confident, assertive, interactive, engaged and verbal. They become active participants in the learning experience, instead of just passive observers.
Play is a conduit to academic learning and physical coordination. For example, using play dough strengthens hand and finger muscles, which eventually leads to writing skills and other manipulative endeavors. Climbing is a complex activity that builds arm, leg and core muscles. It also enhances balance and other gross motor skills, including hand/eye coordination. Then there is dramatic play, which involves a certain level of sophistication. While the scenarios children act out tend to be universal in theme, it is in the details that we get a glimpse into the lives of our children. In those moments of dramatic play we witness the various textures of our children’s lives. We are able to see the relationships our children have with the people around them, hear the voices our children listen to on a daily basis, and better understand the dynamics of the families we serve.
Mastering the Mushroom
I watched a little boy walk over to the art area to get some paper and scissors, like he had done all week. “Help me,” he said as he sat on my lap. “Show me Thumbkin,” I said. He put his thumb up and I placed the scissors in his hand. He immediately rotated his hand with his thumb facing downward, and although his hand position was not quite right, that was not the main concern. I prompted him by saying, “Open, close, open, close.” He began to make the scissors cut, cut, cut. I placed the paper between the open mouth of the scissors and suddenly the sound of cutting paper filled the air. His eyes widened as he did it again… and again… and again. He couldn’t get enough as he made cuts to several more pieces of paper.
As a teacher (and mother) I understand the power of play. More importantly, I understand that teaching, especially young children, is not always about formal, teacher-directed activities where a topic is introduced with the intention of getting a desired result. In play, learning happens spontaneously and teachers understand that they must recognize and take advantage of those teachable moments in a way that is memorable and that will prompt children to practice a new skill or ability on their own.
By introducing knowledge in a playful, engaging and creative way, children are able to find joy in the learning process… which will hopefully last them a lifetime.
By Dora Jacildo
According to a report by the Journal of American Pediatrics, “Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.” But what happens when a child’s environment is chaotic, stressful, and impoverished? What happens when the opportunity for safe, unstructured, child-driven play is not available?
Those of us working closely with young children understand that play is how a child learns best. Play is a child’s work. It is the most effective way to express emotions, negotiate relationships, resolve conflicts, and learn to work in a group. Play involves every aspect of development - physical, cognitive, social and emotional. It inspires creativity and imagination and decreases anxiety and stress. Children who are denied time to play are denied the opportunity to meet their full learning potential.
Children at Work
At Children Today, play is the foundation of our curriculum. Our teachers are well versed in the importance of play and design environments to inspire children to get involved with the materials and with each other. Great emphasis is placed on and plenty of time is given to gross motor development and outdoor play as it directly impacts the child’s ability to relieve stress. Running, bike riding, bouncing balls, climbing, and dancing are essential experiences for children who may not have these opportunities outside of their time with us.
For children coping with the traumatic stress of homelessness, play cannot be an optional activity. It must be part of their educational and care plan if they are to grow up healthy.
By Elia Rocha
Whenever we tour a new visitor to one of our Play House programs, more often than not they’ll say something to the effect of “I never realized there were homeless children here [meaning in the United States].” I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not really expressing surprise at the fact of child homelessness, but instead are grappling with the implications of child homelessness.
This reaction isn’t surprising because thinking about children and homelessness is painful and discomfiting. Moreover, people experiencing homelessness in general tend to be a peripheral group at best and an invisible group at worst. That is, unless they’re right in front of you, in which case they’re often considered a nuisance (think Lincoln Park in Downtown Long Beach).
Our collective perception of homelessness is also informed by popular media images. You’ve seen them; men and women pushing shopping carts, or asleep under cardboard or newspaper.
They are by and large what the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) classify as chronically homeless, meaning someone who lives in a place not meant for human habitation, or in an emergency shelter continually for at least one year or on at least four separate occasions in the last three years, and can be diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder, a serious mental illness, a developmental disability, post-traumatic stress disorder, cognitive impairments resulting from brain injury, or chronic physical illness or disability. While they’re certainly out there, they are only the most visible tip of the iceberg. In Long Beach, individuals who are chronically homeless make up less than 25% of the overall homeless population (see City of Long Beach Biennial Homeless Count for more data).
The remaining 75-77% is made up of individuals and families who are living in cars, motels, shelters, and garages, or are doubled or tripled-up in other people’s homes or apartments. And, unlike HUD’s detailed definition of chronic homelessness which paints a pretty vivid and specific picture, the circumstances underlying episodic homelessness are harder to pin down and categorize. Of course, there are big indicators - domestic violence and substance abuse among them - but often it’s a combination of a lot of things that lead people who never thought they’d become homeless, who don’t “look homeless,” down this terrible path.
When I look back on my childhood I see so many points where my family could have fallen into homelessness – emigrating to the US from Mexico, staying with relatives until we could get a place of our own, living in low-income, resource-scarce neighborhoods, having one parent who worked incredibly hard but couldn't speak the language and another parent who spoke English all right, but struggled with substance abuse and didn't work, having no health insurance and consequently, infrequent medical care. My mother, my sisters and I all worked so hard, and yet, if one of us had gotten sick, if one of us had lost our job, if we’d had to move unexpectedly...these or any of a number of other x-factors might have made the difference between the relatively stable life I had, and one far more precarious.
I bet a lot of us could do the same math and come to the same conclusion.
That’s why seeing children who are experiencing homelessness is so jarring. They don’t look homeless. So, that’s what new visitors to the Play House are grappling with. They’re thinking, “This could be my child or my family.” And, they’re right.
Various members of the Children Today staff contribute to these blog posts.