Toddler Explorations: Garden Date with Mommy

Today is one of those days where I just feel so fortunate. We live in a special part of the city that has a small community feel to it. This afternoon, Oliver and I strolled around our neighborhood just to get some much needed fresh air. 

The day was overcast and cool. There was a nice breeze in the air, and it was notably quiet outside. We strolled toward the nearby park. There were a few kids swinging, but the playground was otherwise vacant and still. I considered letting Oliver play at the park, but thought better of it. He missed his morning nap, so I knew he was tired. And to be honest–we had a bit of a traumatic experience last time we played at the park. Here's the story: I let Oliver climb his way up the small set of stairs leading to the toddler slide. His hand missed a stair as he crawled up, resulting in a bloody mouth and a chipped tooth!

Needless to say, I'm not quite ready just yet for another park adventure. Oliver is so capable and smart, that I sometimes forget that, at 16 months old, he's just barely a toddler. So today, on this calm and idyllic afternoon, I wanted us to take things slow. We passed by the park and strolled on over to the community garden. 

I've taken Oliver to the visit the garden a few times before, but he's typically been carried around or pushed along in his stroller. This time, I let Oliver lead the way. 

For such a little guy, the garden was like a maze. I let him roam and explore. He touched flowers and plants, stuck his hand in fresh soil, picked up rocks, and even watched the garden chickens peck at the ground. We practiced saying words like plant, flower, dirt, and fence. We practiced our colors: blue, yellow, green, and brown. Oliver wandered around the garden for a good half-an-hour.

And then we strolled back home. Oliver fell asleep, as I knew he would. Our simple playdate at the garden made me appreciate the flow and the slowness of the time we get to spend together, just us. It doesn't happen often enough. 

Today, I'm soaking in the goodness. 

Mindfulness in the Classroom with Zentangles

Today, I want to introduce you to a great way to develop mindfulness in the classroom: Zentangles! 

What is a Zentangle, you ask? Only my new favorite pastime!

In short, it is an artform that is created by combining different patterns and designs to create unique images. 

No two Zentangles are the same, but each is beautiful in its own way. I have known about Zentangles for a while now and have been itching to try it out for myself.

So, I finally ordered the most basic supplies on Amazon to get started. I used the Studio Series Art Tiles and a Sakura Micron Pen set in black ink. I got started with One Zentangle a Day, a book with step-by-step pattern instructions and lots of inspiration.

After completing my own Zentangles, I knew I had to incorporate them into the classroom! This work is perfect for elementary-aged students. It is not only fun, but it develops mindfulness. You may or may not know this about me, but I am always on the lookout for new ways to promote mindfulness in the classroom! 

Why? Because mindfulness is a practical life skill. It allows us to be aware of our surroundings; it allows us to enjoy the present moment; it allows us to acknowledge our feelings and emotions. Practicing mindfulness increases focus and reduces stress. In the classroom, mindfulness can help students concentrate on their work and enjoy their learning! If you haven't already, I encourage you to read more about mindfulness in the classroom. There is some promising research in the works!

As Zentangles are drawn in pen, there is no erasing. This should be a quiet and meditative work, because concentration and focus are encouraged when drawing the intricate and detailed designs. Zentangles also teach students that it's okay to make mistakes. Something beautiful can always come from mistakes made along the way! 

On top of that, Zentangles can combine the Elements of Art. Most notably, lines, but also color, space, perspective, and even form. This makes Zentangles the perfect follow-up work to your art lessons!

For an elementary Montessori prepared environment, this work could be placed on the art shelf or on the peace shelf, depending on how you intend it to be used. Your set-up would include a tray that holds a limited number of tiles, a few micron pens to choose from, and three or four simple step-by-step pattern examples. You could also include photos of Zentangles done by others for inspiration!

A lovely mix of student work and my own.

A lovely mix of student work and my own.

For further work with Zentangles, students might try incorporating colored pencils, watercolors, or even ultra-fine point, colored Sharpies into their artwork. As students learn new patterns and designs, they begin to feel more confident in including Zentangles into other artforms as well. I've seen a student draw a self-portrait with a background of Zentangles. I've had students make Zentangle magnets. I've even seen Zentangle bookmarks! The creativity and possibilities are truly boundless. 

If you are interested in making your own Zentangles or introducing them to your students, here are some other great resources to get you started:

Have you tried Zen Tangles with students in the classroom? Share your experiences and ideas in the comments!

New Baby Must-Haves

Stepping into the world of parenthood can be overwhelming to say the least. The learning curve is steep. What does a new baby really need? What baby gear is safest? Why is it all so expensive?

I just went through this myself. I asked friends & family for recommendations, and I scoured the internet searching for the best baby products. I read review after review. I'm guessing most new parents do this. It must go along with the "nesting instinct." This was the criteria that I was looking for:

  1. highest safety standards

  2. functionality

  3. high quality

  4. alignment with Montessori principles

  5. aesthetic design

So, after much experimentation, I've compiled a list of some of the items that I have really loved in these first 6 months with my sweet pea! Affiliate links are included. 

Diapers were a point of debate. I really wanted to use cloth diapers for Oliver for a couple of reasons. First, as a Montessori mommy, I know that cloth diapers are preferred because they allow the baby to feel the discomfort of the wetness in a way that disposable diapers do not. This teaches babies to understand when they need to go to the bathroom and will make toilet training easier in the long run. Second, they are so much more environmentally friendly. While doing research, I found that 27.4 billion disposable diapers are used in the US alone each year! 92% of those sit in landfills. And the most disturbing fact: A typical disposable diaper takes an estimated 250 to 500 years to decompose! And we all know that babies go through LOTS and LOTS of diapers in one day.

So we tried cloth diapers at home. Long story short, the husband didn't like the messiness OR the inconvenience. Oliver still wears cloth diapers in his Montessori classroom during the day, but at home, we had to move on to the next option.

  1. Andy Pandy Diapers: I love these diapers. They are made from 100% biodegradable bamboo. Free from chlorine, alcohol, and phthalates. They are soft and absorbent. They include a wetness indicator just like Pampers. These are disposable diapers that I can feel good about.

  2. Boudreaux's Butt Paste: Prevents and treats diaper rash. It works.

  3. Keekaroo Peanut Changer: Better than any other diaper changing pad out there. No need to buy and wash changing pad covers. It simply wipes clean! This is a game-changer!

  4. Water Wipes: 100% natural. No harsh chemicals. The only ingredients are water and fruit extract. They are perfect for a baby's sensitive skin.

  1. Kiinde Breast Milk Storage Twist Gift Set: Such a time saver! This system allows you to pump directly INTO the storage bags and then bottle-feed directly FROM the storage bags. Genius. GET THIS!

  1. Baby Bjorn Bouncer: I love this because it doesn't rely on batteries. It allows the baby to develop self-soothing techniques by bouncing himself! It's adjustable, so that it can be upright when baby is awake and bouncing, or it can lie back for when baby falls asleep. On top of that, this seat grows with your baby! Simply turn the fabric seat around for a comfy toddler chair.

  2. Dock-A-Tot: Perfect for naps, co-sleeping, or for keeping baby boy contained in his Montessori floor bed! As a new parent worried about SIDS, breathability was a huge concern when choosing a sleeping situation for my little one. Crafted in Europe, the Dock-a-Tot meets the British Standards for air-permeability by allowing 12 liters of air per minute to pass through the item, which is how much a baby typically breaths. And naturally, I smashed my own face against it for a mommy-approved breathability test. It passed! AND now that Oliver is rolling around, his Dock-a-Tot keeps him from rolling right off his Montessori floor bed and onto the floor at night. To top it off, the Dock-a-Tot is great for traveling. The Deluxe size easily packs right in a suit case or can be used as a carry-on item! There is also a Grand size for babies 9 months and older.

  3. STOKKE Scoot Stroller: This stroller has met all of my needs and expectations. It's sleek and easy to maneuver. The wheels are thick and durable, allowing you to stroll along sidewalks or a slightly rougher terrain. The basket underneath is large enough for a diaper bag, shopping bags, etc. The stroller has the baby seated up high, so if you are eating out with baby in tow, he is sitting with you at table height. No need for a highchair. The Stokke PIPA by Nuna carseat is compatible, so you can take baby (carseat and all) out of the car and click him straight into the stroller.

Now for the fun stuff! When Oliver first came into the world, we didn't really have any toys for him. I didn't think toys would be needed for the first couple of months. And for the most part, that's true. At first, babies really just need to be held and nurtured. They love to hear mommy and daddy talk and sing. They like to look at faces, and they like to sleep. That said, they do grow SO fast, and I wish I would've had our play corner set up sooner. 

  1. Skip Hop Play Mat: Tummy Time starts right away! And if you have wood floors (or even just to keep carpet fibers away from baby's face) a foam mat is needed. I love this one because the colors are subdued, and it looks great in my living room. Plus, it's easy to clean! I use a hand vacuum to pick up any fuzz or dirt, and I clean it with baby wipes!

  2. Hohner Kids Cage Bell: This is one of the first toys Oliver liked to play with. The bell makes a nice sound, and the handle is easy for tiny fingers to grasp.

  3. Wee Workout Baby Gym from Land of Nod: I loved the sleek design of this play gym. You can attach any toys you think baby might enjoy looking at and reaching for. I used Froebel yarn balls, and they were perfect! I started with the primary colors, and later changed them out for secondary colors. I like to think that helped to develop Oliver's vision during those early days. He also got good exercise while hitting at the yarn balls.

  4. Innobaby EZ Grip Teether: Another one of Oliver's first favorite toys. There isn't much to it, but it's light, flexible, and easy to grasp.

  5. Mini Masters Box Set: Books are great to have around from day one. Reading to baby while nursing is a wonderful way to bond with your little one. I read everything to Oliver from Dr. Seuss to Emily Brontë. I love the Mini Masters board books because they have sweet rhymes that are paired with famous paintings as illustrations. They introduce the paintings of classic artists like Van Gogh, Degas, and Matisse. We have both learned a lot from these books and will continue using them for a long time to come!

A few items in the "other" category:

  1. Copper Pearl Bandana Bibs: These bibs keep baby stylish while soaking up drool & spit-up. They come in lots of colors and patterns, they are soft and absorbent, and they have a snap closure behind the neck that doesn't irritate sensitive skin.

  2. Nose Frida: Skip the bulb. Get this instead. It works SO. MUCH. BETTER. at clearing the nasal passages when baby gets a cold. And baby WILL get a cold.

  3. Vick's Baby Rub: Scented with eucalyptus, rosemary, and lavender, this ointment offers a gentle way to sooth a sick baby.

It turns out that babies are, indeed, kind of expensive. But you really don't need everything under the sun to keep them happy and healthy.

I'd love to know what some of your favorite baby products are. Please feel free to share in the comments!

Reflections of a First Year Teacher

My first year as a Montessori elementary school teacher has officially come to a close.

What a ride! They say time flies when you're having fun, and indeed, it did. Children who were complete strangers to me a year ago have become the people (aside from my family) whose well-being I contemplate most. 

I finished the school year feeling grateful to have a career that motivates & inspires me, pushes & challenges me, and allows me to make a small, but significant contribution to the world. 

There were good days, fun days, as well as stressful days when tears were shed. Some days made me question my chosen profession, while others confirmed it entirely.

As a class, we bonded, and we settled into a routine. We became a community–the students taking the lead on decision-making and learning to sort through disagreements on their own. I assisted and offered guidance when necessary, but ultimately took a back seat.

We made art, we wrote poetry, we cooked, we dissected, we played, we made music, we danced, we mentored, we presented, we challenged ourselves & each other.

This was a year that I will always remember and look back on fondly. It will always be my first.

Smooth seas never made a skillful sailor.

This was my mantra for most of the year, because challenges are inevitable. They make us stronger  & wiser when we face them head on. Only through persistence and commitment will you begin to see the fruits of your labor. But YOU WILL! 

So, what were some of the challenges I faced in my first year of teaching?

  • Busyness. Much of the year felt busy and hectic. I often felt as though I could barely keep up with all that was going on around the school and couldn't focus on my students and their individual needs as much as I wanted to. The students were busy. They were given a lot of responsibility to plan & prepare events & other activities throughout the year. Responsibility is key in a Montessori environment because it teaches children, in a natural way, to contribute to their community–to be an active participant. However, I also believe that it's in the times of quiet & calm that children are truly free to conjure up, express, and act on their unique ideas & interests.
  • Students' lack of confidence. This one came as a surprise to me. As a first year teacher, right out of my Montessori training, of course I was thrilled to get to know the students and their individual interests. I wanted to know what they were excited to learn about! I observed, listened, and conversed with them in hopes of learning what they loved that might possibly fuel their learning. For the most part, this worked. Children became inspired and engaged, because they were interested! But, as it turns out, there are a few children out there who truly lack a confidence in their work and in their learning abilities. As much as I tried to stoke the flame, they wouldn't admit an interest, they wouldn't latch on and let themselves become excited about an idea. In this case, all I could really do was to focus on building their confidence any time I saw the opportunity. And with persistence, I did see moments where these children were proud of an accomplishment, no matter how small. And I feel good about that.
  • Being in a 6-12 year old classroom, where the idea of an "upper elementary" and a "lower elementary" also existed. The mixed-age classrooms that are essential to a Montessori education are one of the aspects that I love most. I LOVE seeing older children helping younger children and practicing their leadership skills, while the younger children are inspired by the work they see the older ones doing. This is so evident in a 6-12 environment. You've probably seen for yourself just how much a 6 year old looks up to a 12 year old! It brings so much collaboration into the classroom. Many Montessori schools divide their elementary programs into "lower elementary" for the 6-9 year olds and "upper elementary" for the 9-12 year olds. Our school doesn't do that, yet somehow, the terms "lower el" and "upper el" were a part of my students' lexicon from the beginning. This caused a mental division among our students that, I feel, persisted in our classroom throughout the year. I even found myself using the terms on occasion, as much as I tried to refrain. And so, for unity's sake, I'm going to do my best in the coming year to let those terms fade into distant memory...

There will always be challenges. Challenges are good. The key is to not let them become overwhelming. It is so important to stay motivated and inspired. I've found that reading Dr. Montessori's books as well as the lovely blogs written by other educators, teachers, and Montessorians often renews my vigor. Sometimes for me, finding time to spend outdoors will do the trick. Sometimes, rest. 

Right now, I have big life changes underway. Summer break couldn't have come at a more opportune time, as I need to rest, organize, and plan for the future. So I am doing just that.

I'm also working on a new creative project that I'm excited about, and I look forward to sharing that with you further down the road. 

I would love to hear about how you overcame particular challenges throughout the school year. What did you learn in your first year teaching (no matter when that was)? What keeps you motivated and inspired? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments. Let's be motivation & encouragement for each other!

Jane Goodall: A Real Life Hero

Original photograph by Michael Nichols via nationalgeographic.com.

Original photograph by Michael Nichols via nationalgeographic.com.

Today is Dr. Jane Goodall's 81st birthday! She is truly an inspirational human being. She is a life long learner, and she has done so much good in the world. She famously studied chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Tanzania and has spent much of her life working to protect this endangered species. At 81 years old, she continues to travel the world to educate and to advocate on behalf of all endangered species. 

I recently had a student in my elementary class choose to research Jane Goodall. She was inspired to learn more after I read aloud a book about Jane. Initially, I think the student was mostly excited to learn more about the chimpanzees, but it was great to see her grow interested in Jane, too! The student even brought to school a recent article from the New York Times magazine about Jane. I LOVE when students are thinking about what they are learning at school, even when they are at home!

Children in the elementary years are searching for heroes or people in the world they can look up to. Of course, they love Batman and Princess Elsa, but they also love learning about REAL LIFE heroes. They love being inspired by things that other people have done! And that is why it is so important to introduce them to people all around the world–from all backgrounds and all periods throughout history–who have done and are doing amazing things!

What makes Jane Goodall a real life hero? Well, as a scientist she spent years studying the chimpanzees in order to better understand them. She learned that– like human beings–they have individual personalities, and they express deep emotions. She also passionately believes that they are meant to live in the wild. Consequently, she has spent her life as a great advocate for the wellbeing of the chimpanzees, as well as for the conservation of their natural habitats. 

 I just watched this lovely video from National Geographic all about Jane in celebration of her birthday, and I encourage you to give it a view as well. 

If you want to learn more about Jane Goodall or are interested in the work her nonprofit organization is doing, check out the The Jane Goodall Institute

Perhaps you or someone you know who is passionate about animals and animal rights might even be interested in one of the awesome internships they offer!

Happy 81st Birthday, Dr. Jane Goodall! Thanks for being a real life hero!