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Stuff and new stuff
Play as learning: For teachers and children


Starting with Character: Activities for Infants, Toddlers, and Twos
Written by Cathy Waggoner and Martha Herndon. Redleaf Press, 2016. ($24.95)


Seldom do infant and toddler teachers consider character development. Indeed, even teachers of older children tend to focus on particular behaviors rather than the broad and critical impact of character—caring, honesty, integrity, respect, responsibility, and self-discipline—on positive social and emotional development.

Waggoner and Herndon combine years of experience focusing on child development to offer this hands-on, activity-rich book. In clear, friendly language, they make a case for teaching character development and offer the tools and insights that support teachers. The overview of developmental stages in the first three years is particularly valuable to inexperienced teachers; for program directors and administrators it’s a worthy capsule to share with families.

Current research—both anecdotal and that based on brain imaging—supports a changing understanding of children’s moral development and the inherent potential in infants and toddlers to recognize and respond to emotional and social interactions. Rather than being purely sensory learners, research shows infants building a complex network of emotional responses, including self-conscious emotions like jealousy, empathy, pride, shame, and guilt, and the ability to read emotional cues from others (called social referencing).

A rich catalog of developmentally responsive—and playful— activities invites teachers to reinforce the character traits that grow from trust between children and their primary caregivers. The activities are categorized (including music, art, blocks, puzzles, and nature) with solid introductions and instructions: the activity name, potential age range, character trait, materials needed, and how-to’s. The character connection is highlighted for each of the activities; play is the strategy for supporting character development.

Starting With Character is a valuable library resource for teachers who are striving to incorporate current research findings in their classroom practices with the youngest learners. It also has great potential for in-service instruction sessions for novice teachers, and as an idea generator for experienced educators.


Planning for Play: Strategies for Guiding Preschool Learning
Written by Kristen Kemple, PhD. Gryphon House, 2017. ($14.95)


Experienced preschool educator and university professor Kristen Kemple builds a strong and reinforcing case for play as an essential learning tool for young children. Her book addresses the dangers of push-down academics (and developmentally inappropriate practices), increasing parental expectations for real learning, and the policy demands of public education that seem to truncate the period of early childhood.

Planning for Play is an exceptional tool both for inexperienced teachers who are looking for the basics, and for experienced educators eager to brush up on the vocabulary, research, and current recommendations for best practices related to play. Eight chapters cover basic developmental ages and stages, the nature of play, teachers’ roles in play, and building children’s competence across domains. Significant is the chapter on supporting play—with tips on materials, activities, and fostering creativity.

Kemple offers authentic anecdotes to illustrate points and highlight specific learning activities; templates, charts, planning tips, and materials lists make planning clear and efficient. For example, in the section on sociodramatic play, Kemple advises teachers to be active planners to ensure meaningful play. Her tips include the following:
Provide simple dress-up items to help children designate their roles.
Provide props that include both realistic and more flexible (symbolic) items.
Provide incentives, such as a book, thematic unit, or field trip.
Provide reminders—like photos of roles and the sequences of action.
Incorporate a brief planning time at the beginning of play. Set the stage by helping children form their play intentions.
Provide sufficient time for play—40 to 60 minutes.

The book reinforces the need for documentation and evaluation with prompts for teacher reflections and charts for teacher-created play plans—before, during, and after the play. A comprehensive reference and resource list makes it easy for teachers to learn—and do—more to support play in early childhood.


Saving Play: Addressing Standards Through Play-based Learning in Preschool and Kindergarten
Written by Gaye Gronlund and Thomas Rendon. Redleaf Press, 2017. ($34.95)


Boldly, Saving Play argues that the increase in standards-based education is the reason to embed more—not less—play-based learning in early childhood classrooms. This timely guide shares research, resources, and practices that link academic activities with play experiences.

Over the past 15 years, educators (and parents) have waged a battle over play. On one side, taxpayers and educators use research to plead for evidence-based instructional practices; education is expensive and we must be able to measure positive results to justify that expense. On the other side, equally earnest educators use research to support educational practices that are driven by children’s explorations and interests and are supported by competent, nurturing adults.

In their book, Gronlund (an educator) and Rendon (an administrator) help make play a curricular strategy, and point to play as the richest and most useful context for meaningful learning. They start with an examination of play, teacher support, and evidence-based instructional standards—what we know about how and what children learn from both research and best practices. In section 2, they explore practical aspects of pedagogy and the ways in which teachers can begin to find the essential balance between active and passive instruction (what the teacher does) and learning (what the child does).

Seven chapters are dedicated to addressing established standards—including language, math, science, social studies, social-emotional development, and motor skills—through play. Further, the authors address inclusion, assessment, and advocacy as well as identify existing policies that seem to interfere with play.

While many early care and education programs skirt the standards-play controversy, the children in the program will inevitably move into kindergarten programs that are firmly enmeshed. Saving Play offers the tools, arguments, and language for those advocates—preschool and primary grade teachers—who are eager to enter the debate on the side of children and their optimal development.


Dear Girl: A Celebration of Wonderful, Smart, Beautiful You!
Written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Paris Rosenthal and illustrated by Holly Hatam. HarperCollins, 2018. ($17.99)


Written for every girl, Dear Girl is a catalog of personal and universal notes that joyfully reinforce individuality—quirky, troubled, sincere, and playful—and self-love. While the illustrations suggest a primary-grade child, preschoolers will appreciate and learn from the messages offered, starting with “Keep that arm raised!! You have smart things to say!”

Text and illustrations mesh as each spread opens with Dear Girl (as in a letter) and then offers reinforcing permission for exploring the social and emotional states of young children: Sometimes you feel like being pink and sparkly, and sometimes you feel like jumping in mud; or sometimes when you cry you need a hug or a tissue, and sometimes a bucket for your tears.

Some of the letters are directive like, “Dear Girl, don’t ever lose your sense of wonder” and “Dear Girl, listen to your brave side.” And some give advice, like “Dear Girl, Coloring outside the lines is cool too.” Each short message offers opportunity for meaningful and authentic conversations with individual children and those in groups. And while the message is especially strong for girls, the boys in the group are sure to relate, imagine, and engage.


Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth
Written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. Philomel Books, 2018. ($19.99)


Oliver Jeffers is no stranger to preschool classrooms. He’s marked his place with favorites like Stuck, Once Upon an Alphabet, and The Day the Crayons Quit that consistently reinforce his message of tolerance and respect—celebrating our differences—with humor and unexpected insights.

With characteristic charm and wit, Oliver Jeffers introduces his newborn son Harland to the complexity and simplicity of our world, and shares his wisdom in Here We Are, an engaging and heartfelt book for preschoolers.

The opening pages illustrate the solar system (probably not to scale, he tells us) and funnels us down to Earth, both land and sea. Narrowing again, Jeffers offers a primer on biology and diversity, both animal and human. His illustrations tell the story best, with detail and whimsy, inviting observations about where we live, how we communicate, how we spend our time, and how we find answers to our questions. He tells us all to just ask others because “You’re never alone on Earth.”