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Connecting Through Meaningful Conversation

November 21, 2017
By Jennifer Heness

With this being Thanksgiving week, I thought I'd share a little dinnertime tradition I have in my house. We call it "Happy, Sad, and Silly" and it occurs so regularly it's as important to our day as dinner itself. It's how we check in with each other and connect as a family. 

This little tradition started when my oldest was in preschool. He's currently in 5th grade, so it's stuck for a while now. It's a little dinnertime practice of reflection and gratitude that continued, even years later as each new sibling joined the table. Every night when we sit to eat together, someone always shouts out, "Let's do happy, sad and silly!" We go around the table and everyone takes a turn sharing one happy, one sad, and one silly thing about their day. Its pretty simple. 

While it is a good opportunity to sneak in some practice with manners, as we try to listen politely and not cut anyone off, it's also a great way to start meaningful conversation. The best part is that our kids have become enthusiastic to tell us about their day. We hear about recess, school, friends, playground interactions, new ideas, anything on their mind. We hear how their day went from their point of view. It's very telling. In turn, they are enthusiastic to hear about our day, too. They hear about work deadlines, traffic, hobbies, or whatever stress or joys we've had in our adult lives. It shows them that even adults have ups and downs, just like them.

As a family, it helps us all know more and care more about each other. It helps us reflect on all of the things we're grateful for, and discuss or learn from any negatives that may have come up. And in those minutes of sharing the energy completely resets in the room. It's like we all breathe a deep sigh of relief and mentally say, “Ok, that was our day, but we’re over it now. We're all here together, it’s time to enjoy this moment and this dinner..." 

Hearing about someone else's day, the ups and downs, is a nice way to teach empathy and to help children realize everyone- their friends, their siblings, even their parents, have good and bad things happen each day. Children care. They are curious and very much interested in learning about you as well as from you. Try telling your kids one thing that made you happy today, one thing that may have made you sad, and don't forget to add in the silly, because it reminds us to not take everything so seriously. As adults, especially, if by dinner time nothing silly has happened yet, perhaps it's time for an impromptu family dance party?! It's important to remember to have a little fun. 

Do you have any family traditions to practice gratitude and connect with each other? Around the dinner table or before bed are good times to create a little routine of reflecting. 

I hope you enjoy some time with family and friends this week. Happy Thanksgiving - Jen 

Food Prep with Kids

November 13, 2017
By Jennifer Heness

Hello Learning Together Friends, 

The holiday season is approaching and that usually means spending more time in the kitchen. Family gatherings often revolve around family recipes and traditions. Food brings people together. It's also a powerful memory trigger as certain smells and tastes can transport you to a particular time or place. What was your favorite meal as a child? Does a flavor or smell remind you of someone? How do you think your child would answer?

Getting children into the kitchen to help prepare and serve food is one of the best ways to build important practical life skills. Food preparation is a form of self care. Learning how to handle kitchen tools further develops motor skills. Learning step-by-step processes aids in independence. And of course, spending time together in the kitchen is a great way to bond as a family and create memories.

Food preparation is a daily occurrence in a Montessori classroom. It is as common to see a child focused on peeling a clementine as it is focused on a math or language lesson. It's valuable and satisfying work. "The apples taste better when I cut them myself," my son came home from school saying, at age 3. With proper lessons and guidance, children are given the opportunity to prepare many things themselves at school.

Food preparation activities start simple and gain in complexity. Children may start with washing an apple or scrubbing a potato and then explore peeling clementines or shelling edamame. They are introduced to chopping with soft foods like a banana, a slice of bread, or cheese. Children learn how to measure, stir, and mash, how to make toast, spread jam, juice an orange, and eventually make more complicated, multi-step snacks. By doing these activities they focus on a task, follow a sequence of steps, and gain much confidence. In addition to preparing food, they also enjoy serving it to their classmates. This adds a social component, gives them a chance to practice using manners and contribute to their community.

The practical life and food prep lessons from the classroom can carry home as well. For my family, most of the learning that happens at home happens in our kitchen. Here are a few tips to get your children busy in the kitchen.


-- Explore the senses. Exploring foods sensorially is a great introduction for even the youngest child. Think about feeling interesting skins, like a pineapple or kiwi, and comparing smells like fresh citrus or ground cinnamon. A child can use their hands to explore the texture of cooked spaghetti in a big bowl. Or practice pouring, scooping and enjoy the sound raw beans or corn kernels make in different containers. 

-- Start simple. I started introducing food prep at home by allowing my toddler to wash produce. Either at a stool in front of the sink, or a big punch bowl on the floor with some water and a sponge, my youngest would happily wash all of our produce. Take it a step further and show them how to dry it and where it's stored. 

-- Get them some tools. My toddler loves going down the kitchen isle of any store to look at utensils. Try letting your child pick out their own spatula, mini whisk, or set of measuring cups. Let them have a bin or drawer in the kitchen where they keep their own tools. Of course there are play kitchens and pretend tools, but children want to learn with the real deal as well. Letting them pick out their own gives them an added sense of pride when they get to use it. 

-- Nifty gadgets. Children love learning how to use little gadgets. Keep an eye out for things that safely let your child have fun exploring a kitchen task. For example, my toddler loves to slice strawberries with an egg slicer. Or use a mortar and pestle to mash up fresh herbs. I recently got a grape slicer that dices a grape four ways. It's fun for them and keeps them busy while I'm busy making dinner. He's proud when he can contribute an ingredient that he prepared with his little gadget. 

-- Off load a manageable task. When making any meal, offload something manageable. For example, your toddler can dump and mix ingredients in a bowl. They can peel things, mash things, and set the table. A toddler favorite in our house is prepping roasted veggies. With a simple setup - a small bowl of olive oil, a small bowl of seasonings, a paint brush and a tray, and he's good to go. My youngest will lay all of the chopped vegetables on a baking sheet, paint them with olive oil, pinch and sprinkle some seasonings, and they're ready for the oven. What are the chances he enjoys eating them? Very high because he enjoyed making them. By getting them involved you increase the likelihood they'll enjoy the meal. 

-- Embrace the mess: Cooking is messy. Welcoming a young child into the process requires the adult to let go a little, or a lot! Remember it's about learning, exploring, and bonding. It's not going to be fast or perfect. Take your time and expect things to spill, it's okay. Give them a lesson on cleaning up when you're done. The more they practice, the more comfortable and competent they become with it. 


The child's desire to participate in everyday family life is a powerful force. Preparing meals and snacks, baking, helping, even just hanging with you are all satisfying activities that directly support their well-being. Confidence follows naturally when they see their efforts make a meaningful contribution. With your help, your children can manage so much in the kitchen. Have fun with it and create some new traditions. 

I could talk about cooking and kids all day, so if you have any questions or want more examples, just let me know. See you this week  - Jen 

The Development of Language

November 06, 2017
By Jennifer Heness

Hello Learning Together friends,

I was switching out some materials in the classroom and thinking about language lessons, and how EVERYTHING in the classroom is a language lesson when it comes to toddlers. During these early years, there is a rapid growth in acquiring language skills, a "sensitive period" as Montessori called it, where the child is like a sponge and absorbs easily from their environment, especially language. 

The Montessori classroom is designed in such a way that activities in all of the curriculum areas lend themselves toward the development of language. Interesting objects all around the room invite curiosity and naturally lead to learning new words. Matching and sorting activities lead to learning adjectives, action words, and categories. Toddlers are learning how to talk, so their language lessons are based on naming things and describing things. 

Language is also supported in the classroom by the freedom of conversation allowed to the children. The ability to move around and work with or along side others encourages social skills and communication. Circle time supports language by singing, clapping patterns, doing finger plays, rhyming, and of course, reading books. 

Aside from the classroom being a language rich environment, the language shelves themselves feature specific activities in naming, labeling, grouping and sequencing. When ready, children explore letter sounds using the sandpaper letters, often with objects or pictures. We focus more on teaching the letter sounds than the names because this leads to the awareness that words are made up of sounds. 

Parents often ask what they can do to support their toddler's language development? The easiest answer is read to your child and talk, about anything and everything! You encourage listening skills when you engage in conversations, pause for your child to answer, and explore questions like how and why. Ask them to tell you more about their ideas. Talk to them about whatever it is you are doing. Sing together, play "I spy" and recite nursery rhymes. 

When you read, they take it all in - vocabulary and language structure, colors, shapes, animals, opposites, manners, and all kinds of useful information about how the world works.  Also, when you read out loud, your child connects books with the familiar sound of your voice, their favorite sound! It may seem like babies or toddlers are not listening, but they are absorbing the experience. And the patterns, routines and attentive habits that are set now will last a lifetime. Have fun with it.


See you this week, Jen 

Movement and Motor skillsĀ 

October 30, 2017
By Jennifer Heness

Movement is vital to children's development. By engaging in physical activity, their muscles and senses develop, and as those send messages to the brain, that develops too. Children discover and make sense of the world through activity. It actually helps their brain to grow! Montessori acknowledges this connection between the brain, the senses, and the muscles, and considers movement an essential part of learning. 

In the classroom, children are free to move about. Their learning is an active experience. When children make ten trips back and forth to bring the Pink Tower cubes to their work space, they are not doing so because it keeps them "busy". They are building the muscle memory of the concept of “ten" through movement. Physically carrying ten objects, or making ten trips, is much more effective than counting alone. It makes an impression and becomes an experience they can recall. (You could take this idea home and practice counting stairs each time you go up or down them together.) By adding movement, or a physical component, children learn a concept with their mind and their whole body. 

In addition to making mental connections, movement strengthens motor skills. There are two main types of motor skills children develop--fine motor and gross motor. 

Gross motor skills deal with the large muscle groups and are responsible for activities like running, walking, climbing, etc. In the classroom, or at home, these are strengthened when a child moves around their space, carries something, climbs, uses the steps, lifts and pours, cleans up, or paints at an easel. Gross motor skills create coordination and eventually allow for certain life skills like developing balance, learning to swim, ride a bike, or enjoy athletics. 

Fine motor skills are those that coordinate the small muscles in the hands. Fine motor skills are required for writing, eating with utensils, shoe-tying, buttoning, zipping, etc. Children benefit greatly from activities that strengthen their hands. This is why, in the classroom, they use knobbed puzzles, have opportunities to grasp various sized objects, and practice opening and closing containers. This is also why our Practical Life activities involve spoons, tweezers, tongs, pouring, beading, and lacing activities. All of these are intended to help strengthen the hands, as well as their ability to concentrate on a task.

Many of the Practical Life materials are based on activities from the home, specifically the kitchen. Take a look at the shelves and you'll see it's possible to give your child some fine and gross motor practice with items you already have at home. A few bowls, small cups, a muffin tin or ice cube tray, and you have plenty to work with. I am always happy to give ideas.

See you this week, Jen 


"What the hand does, the mind remembers." - Montessori 

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