Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Giving Kids a Head Start

This week, we’re celebrating a year of remarkable service and the graduation of our 2010-11 AmeriCorps team with a series of posts.  MuseumCorps Educator Cassandra Kane reflected on the work of this year's Head Start team.

One of the Museum’s core values is being accessible and responsive to ALL families. Through Museum outreach programs, the most vulnerable children in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls experience hands-on activities developed and facilitated by MuseumCorps Educators, a group of 13 individuals committed to a year of AmeriCorps service.

This year, four of those educators—Cassi Rebisz, Bonnie Platzer, Kirsten Thomsen and myself, under the supervision of Early Childhood Program Coordinator Mary Hackman—collaborated with Children’s Friend Head Start centers in greater Providence to introduce sensory activities to 1,026 children in 57 classrooms.
Cassi, Kirsten, Cassandra and Bonnie following a successful Head Start Family Night.

We first visited the classrooms to introduce ourselves and the Museum through an interactive book we created, “Nori’s Story.” After singing and marching to the song “We’re Going on a Field Trip,” the children played with Museum toys such as puppets, costumes, blocks and trucks. Within a few days, the children visited us at the Museum for a 90-minute field trip.

Each year, Head Start teachers vote on a theme for the two classroom activities we plan. This year’s topic was the five senses, so we first read “You Can’t Taste a Pickle with Your Ear,” which comically presents the senses with rhymes and silly illustrations, then introduced each sense through fun, hands-on activities. For hearing, we played a sound matching game. We filled boxes with materials like washers, wood chips and sand, and the children took turns shaking and listening to each box to find the pairs. For smell, we placed Q-tips saturated with different scents into small spice canisters. Children took turns smelling and guessing the scents – peppermint, banana, orange, coconut, hot chocolate and cinnamon. I loved some of the children's guesses; rather than “cinnamon,” they said “apple sauce” or instead of “hot chocolate,” they exclaimed “marshmallows!” It was fun to see how certain smells reminded them of other things, which is just another form of learning. Then children used their taste buds to sample honey and lemon juice; they also learned new words like “sweet” and “sour” to describe the flavors.

For touch, we introduced natural red clay to the classrooms. Although Play-Doh is popular in preschool classrooms, we decided to show children and teachers how playing with natural materials can be just as fun. After the children felt and described the clay’s texture (Smooth or bumpy? Soft or hard? Wet or dry?), they sculpted with a variety of natural materials, including pinecones, seashells and rocks. Teachers had the option to keep the creations in their classrooms overnight so children could see how the clay dries and hardens.

In the second classroom activity, we delved more deeply into sound. After reading the interactive story “Boom, Baby, Boom Boom,” in which the children made various animal noises and kept a beat, we introduced them to the classical music of Vivaldi’s “Spring” and led them in a flower dance. Children learned to distinguish “low” and “high” sounds by playing instruments made of cans and spoons and experienced how sound vibrates and travels by talking through plastic tubes attached to funnels. The activity concluded with a rhythm game, in which we tapped and clapped in fast and slow tempos. What the team enjoyed most about this activity was showing teachers and children how to use ordinary objects (old cans, spoons) to make fun activities. You don’t need fancy instruments to explore the wonders of music and sound!

We also conducted workshops for the teachers, presenting new and exciting curriculum to implement in their classrooms. We each developed an activity based on one of the senses: Cassi showed teachers how to use old transparency machines to tell stories in a unique way; Bonnie created a “Look Book” with pictures from recycled magazines; Kirsten taught animal words in American Sign Language and told a farm story; and I demonstrated the “bottle organ” by filling five glass bottles with different levels of water to create different notes of the scale, and showed teachers how to play simple songs like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Hot Cross Buns.”

A few weeks after lead teacher Elisa DeMatos and her assistant Aida Dones attended our workshop, Elisa told me her classroom was focusing on sound and they had created a bottle organ. They also added food coloring to each bottle and numbered them 1 to 5—two suggestions I introduced during the workshop to expand the lesson to address color and number recognition. When I visited the classroom, Elisa and Aida enthusiastically explained how simple and fun the bottle organ was to make, and how perfectly it fit into their sound curriculum. They shared that many of their students can now distinguish between “low” and “high” pitches and some enjoyed “composing” their own songs and grasped the concept of rhythm and beat. Learning that the teachers implemented an activity I introduced felt incredibly rewarding and certainly made all of the prep and planning worthwhile.

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