By Elia Rocha, Alexis Vazquez, and Rachel Moore
There can be few greater joys for a parent or a teacher than introducing young children to the wonder of books. Books, after all, contain the whole world. They can take children on magical trips of discovery, they can inspire in them a love of language, they can help them learn to express their emotions. They come in an infinite variety and are always ready to share their treasures.
At our Play House programs, we take special care to select books that are not only great to read and fun to listen to, but that also speak to the unique experiences of the children we care for. It's so important that they see themselves - their culture, their struggles, their history - reflected in the pages. Crucially, these books can also provide the words our kids need to share what they're feeling inside.
We asked two of our preschool teachers, Rachel Moore and Alexis Vazquez, to look through our libraries and pick some favorites. Here's what they chose.
When Sophie Gets Angry - Really, Really Angry...
By Molly Bang
Play House West teacher Rachel Moore selected this book. Rachel writes:
"This book explores what happens when Sophie gets really angry. It talks about how she is feeling in descriptive language; for example, 'She roars a red, red, roar', and 'Sophie is a volcano, ready to explode.' It also shows how Sophie deals with these big feelings. First Sophie runs and runs, then she cries for a while. When she is done crying, she listens to the wind and the animals around her and comforts herself."
"This book is very relevant to our children because Sophie experiences a big emotion that they also experience. The book teaches that this big feeling is natural and it also shows how she copes. The ways in which Sophie experiences her anger are nonviolent and involve self-soothing; an important skill for our children to learn."
Llama Llama Misses Mama
By Anna Dewdney
Play House North teacher Alexis Vazquez chose this book. Alexis writes:
"This is a story about a little llama on the first day of school and the sadness and loneliness he feels when his mom drops him off. The little llama is sad and lonely until a teacher reminds him that this mother will be back. He starts to make new friends, and when his mom comes to pick him up he is excited to tell her all about his day."
"This book helps children talk about missing their parents when they are dropped off at school; about the separation anxiety they might feel. We use this book to help some of our children transition into the classroom and to help them put words to what they might be feeling."
By Chris Raschka
"This simple book illustrates two children meeting. Using only one-to-two word phrases they greet each other, talk about their feelings, and become friends. Although the two boys are very different, they form a bond together."
"I think this book is fascinating to our children because it shows them how a friendship can be developed using only a few words. It teaches pro-social skills with a minimum of language, which is great for our children, who may sometimes struggle to make new friends. It showcases how they might form bonds with their classmates."
The Magic Beads
By Susin Nielsen-Fernlund
"This book is about a little girl who moves into a shelter with her mother, leaving behind most of her possessions. At her new school she learns that she'll have to bring something in for Show & Tell at the end of the week. She gets more and more nervous, worrying that she'll have nothing to share with her class. By talking to her mother, she realizes that she does have something to share - her magic beads. They're ordinary beads by themselves, but with her imagination, they can take her anywhere."
"So many of our kids have had similar experiences, losing their toys and clothes - sometimes all of their possessions - when moving to a shelter. This book helps our children talk about how it feels to leave what they had behind. It also helps them share their shelter experiences with other children in the classroom."
We're Going on a Bear Hunt
By Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury
This story follows a family as they set off on an adventure to find a bear. The words can be sung and the children can use hand motions and sound effects as they read along with the teacher."
"The beauty of this book is that it allows children to get lost in the narrative by using their whole bodies and their imagination. While it doesn't necessarily speak to our children's unique situations, I believe it is therapeutic because it allows them to sing, move, and be creative. They can experience the simple pleasures of this children's classic."
A Mother for Choco
By Keiko Kasza
"This book is about a yellow bird named Choco, who doesn't have a mother. He goes in search of one and every animal he meets points out the physical differences between them and tells him they can't be his mother. Choco begins to cry. A bear who sees him crying as she's walking by decides to become his mother, despite their different physical appearances."
"This book illustrates the diversity in families in a way that is simple for children to understand. It helps them realize that families come in all shapes and sizes."
By Cheryl Ichikawa
I grew up in a time when discipline was not about communication and respect. It was about doing what I was told. Consequences always entailed losing certain privileges, and often included physical punishment. Fear was considered a deterrent. But what did I learn?
When I became a parent and had to decide how to discipline my children, it was not easy because many of my friends and family still subscribed to the same patterns of generations before them. However, what I learned growing up was that fear does not just deter you from doing the wrong things, but the right things as well. For me to try new things, venture beyond the familiar and safe, or to allow myself to do something with the possibility of getting it wrong… fear stopped me every time.
I decided that I wanted my children to grow up, not in fear of what could happen, but with an understanding of why things do happen. I wanted them to be able to take risks (calculated risks) that allowed them to see beyond what is and venture into what could be. Therefore, my children needed to understand that making mistakes is the first step to learning something new. And so, I decided to discipline my children with respect and communication instead of threats, reprimands and physical punishment.
Non-violent caregiving nurtures children’s belief in themselves and gives them the courage to seek new adventures and build upon what they know to be true. Instead of fear, children and caregivers create a dynamic of trust, communication and support. Children are results-oriented. Therefore, if caregivers can provide children with non-confrontational ways of interacting with peers or verbal alternatives for getting their needs met, they can decide to act accordingly. However, the burden of consistency and control is on us. We must decide how we handle situations - our volume, tone of voice, physicality, and the words we use. All these things matter and have an effect on all the children in the environment.
Young children learn by example. Therefore, it is the caregiver’s responsibility to always act accordingly. Inconsistency is confusing and creates stress for children. Have you ever watched a child in the process of learning something new? They will do the same thing over and over and over again, often with a smile on their face. This is learning. Discipline needs to be administered the same way. We must have consistency in our responses to negative behavior. We must use few choice words, a soft voice, a gentle touch and we need to come down to their physical level (kneeling or squatting). By doing this, we show respect for the child and what is happening in the moment. By acknowledging what is happening in the moment, we show the child that we are watching. By offering the child help or another alternative, we help the child to understand that there are different choices he or she can make next time.
Watching a child experience life is a beautiful thing. They see new things without filters, past experiences or fear. As caregivers (teachers, parents, adults) we must work daily to protect the innocence of our children and allow them to just be in the moment… to learn on their own terms, in their own time, and in their own way.
By Dora Jacildo
Children Today was established by founders who believed that every child was deserving of an early childhood grounded in respect. They knew that children would excel if they were given an environment where they could feel emotionally and physically safe. Our staff spends most of their time providing this experience for the children in our care with empathy, respect, compassion and a thorough understanding of child development as the foundations for the work we do in our classrooms and in our offices.
Non-violent care-giving means being very intentional about our interactions with children, about the materials and equipment in the classroom, and about our connections with one another. It means eliminating bias and judgment and embracing the idea that every child is doing the best they can with the skills they have. Our focus is on sharing power, teaching problem solving skills, engaging in critical thinking and ensuring that our time spent with children is never punitive and always supportive.
However, in order for our philosophy to be successfully implemented, we must ensure that our parents are also cared for with the goals of emotional and physical safety in mind. For many of our families, violence has been a part of their daily lives. Their relationships have not been respectful and their communities have not been safe. Many arrive at our centers feeling very guarded, expecting that we too will hurt them in some way if they let us in. But because the philosophy works so well, in time families come to realize the fundamental importance of a relationship like this and it serves as an example for how they can connect with their children.
Non-violent caregiving benefits all children, but it is absolutely life changing for a family experiencing homelessness.
By Elia Rocha
2013 has been an eventful year for Children Today. We've had our share of obstacles and challenges, true, but we've also had some great successes too. Here, then, a brief recap of the year that was.
January - March
Audit Season Begins
Call us lucky, because in the first quarter of 2013, Children Today prepared for and underwent three separate programmatic and fiscal audits for various federal and state contracts. For those who might worry that non-profit organizations are less regulated than for-profit enterprises, take heart in knowing that we've been thoroughly vetted and reviewed. We did fine, by the way.
It's a New Car!
Wow! As part of their 40th anniversary celebration, Toyota's TABC Manufacturing Plant gave us a brand new Toyota Sienna! We love this minivan and use it all the time to buy groceries and supplies, and to pick up donations. TABC has been a supporter of Children Today for years, and this beautiful car was the icing on an already very rich cake. Thank you so much!
Hearts and Soles
For the past five years, a local Long Beach family has donated new shoes to the children in our Play House programs to commemorate co-founder Jennifer Fitzgerald's birthday. This family's generosity is emblematic of the many other families, groups, and businesses who conduct toy and diaper drives, give us their birthday money, host small fundraisers on our behalf, and come up with other creative ways to show their support to our children and families.
April - June
Bad News and Good Friends
Early in the year, our Play House facilities were burglarized twice and many of our diapers, wipes, hygiene products, clothes, socks, and underwear were stolen. After a brief Facebook post sharing the bad news, we were flooded with product donations that far and away replaced what had been taken.
The Run/Walk and Our Ten Guys
Children Today's 5th Annual Run Walk was held on Memorial Day weekend. It was a lot of fun, and we had hundreds of runners and walkers join us for this important fundraiser for Children Today. On its own, the Run/Walk was a great event, but it was made extra special by 10 Guys and 200 Miles. 10 members of the Long Beach community agreed to walk in relay fashion for 200 miles from Santa Barbara to the start line of the Run/Walk in Long Beach. Along the way, they raised $50,000 for Children Today. Their efforts were truly inspiring.
July - September
An Expanded Mission
Children Today expanded our mission to include serving families involved in the child welfare system. We did this for two reasons: 1) there is a considerable overlap between children who have been homeless and those who have experienced abuse and neglect, and 2) the effects of both types of trauma – homelessness and abuse/neglect – manifest themselves in similar ways in young children.
Under the leadership of Executive Director Dora Jacildo, teaching staff have undergone and continue to undergo extensive training around providing trauma-informed care. These efforts are aimed at ensuring that our program staff are always mindful of the needs that children and families are communicating (verbally or non-verbally) and that our Play House programs are safe havens for the disenfranchised and vulnerable.
October - December
A New Home for Children Today
One of the agency's biggest dreams came true in October when we closed escrow on a property that will be the future home of all Children Today programs. Plans are underway to rehab the place and get it ready for our kids and families. We are projecting to be able to move in by fall of 2014.
After years of renting, finally owning our own facility is an absolute joy. We are so grateful to all of our supporters who helped to make this dream a reality.
Holiday Cheer Ends the Year with a Flourish
Children Today and Holiday Cheer go together like peanut butter and jelly. As the agency's marquee event, Holiday Cheer is our highest profile fundraiser, bringing together hundreds of supporters for a great party with the aim of raising a significant portion of the following year's operating budget. This year's Holiday Cheer was a smash hit, raising nearly $200,000. More than that, it raised the bar for all future Children Today parties.
Thanks for reading our Year in Review, and be sure to stay tuned for all the goings on in 2014. Happy New Year (almost)!
By Elia Rocha
At no other time is the giving spirit of our community of supporters better illustrated than during the holiday season. Right after Thanksgiving, we host our annual Holiday Cheer fundraiser, an auction and party that we hope will generate enough income to cover a significant portion of our operating expenses for the following year. Every year, we spend months planning Holiday Cheer, and worrying about meeting our goal, and every year, our community of supporters comes out in full force to get us there. This year did not disappoint. Holiday Cheer brought in nearly $200,000! An amazing result, and we are all so thrilled and so grateful.
Then there's the Holiday Store. The week before Christmas, we set up a temporary "store" in our administrative offices at The Play House North. We organize donations of toys, clothes, shoes, & personal care products and invite current and alumni parents to select and wrap gifts for their children. This year, our parents were able to select gifts for 125 children.
We received some amazing things too. Besides all the new toys, clothes, and shoes, we had donors knit and sew us dozens of beautiful scarves and cozy blankets. These were real labors of love.
While it undoubtedly feels great to give, it sometimes is hard to receive. We recognize how difficult the holidays must be for some of our families, how ambivalent some parents might feel about not being in a position to buy their children gifts themselves, and instead have to rely on other people's donations. That's why the graciousness and sincere gratitude our parents express to us and to all of our holiday donors is a gift in itself. One parent even made us her signature banana pudding as a thank you. It was delicious.
To all of you who have donated to Children Today in 2013 and have kept us and our families in your thoughts, we thank you. Happy Holidays from the Children Today family.
The toddlers at Play House West love using their hands to explore different textures. These fun and messy sensory activities help young children develop their motor skills. Here, our little ones are making "clean mud" using baking soda and water.
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.
The preschoolers at the Play House North just love getting immersed in art activities. Our teachers use also sorts of common household objects to facilitate the fun.
Here, our budding artists create colorful designs using cookie cutters.
Next up, fly swatters for fun splash patterns.
The best tools in our toolkit...hands!
The final products. These are definitely getting hung!
Various members of the Children Today staff contribute to these blog posts.