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During the spring, kids across America are preparing for state-mandated tests. For many kids, that means extra stress as they complete additional worksheets, take practice tests, and worry about whether or not they will advance to the next grade level. We call this "test stress."

Test stress often leads to feelings of anxiety, nervousness, and fear, which can have a very negative impact on children's ability to think clearly and to perform well on tests (there is actually brain science behind it and we'll discuss that later in this article).

Helping kids learn how to calm their nerves can help them feel more "in control" and improve their test scores. And, as an after school professional, you are in a unique position to help kids learn how to beat test stress.

Here are a few suggestions:

First, teach kids to develop a positive mindset about their test taking ability so that their thoughts are working for them and not against them.

Thoughts create beliefs and beliefs create results! If kids have negative beliefs about their ability to perform well on tests, they won't do well on tests. When they change their thoughts, they change their beliefs, which will change their results.

You can help children uncover their beliefs by asking them how they feel about the upcoming test. You can also listen to how they talk about the test during casual conversations with their friends. If they express fear or worry about the test, it's a great time to talk with them about the impact of their thoughts on their results.

Help them create a "positive self-talk mantra" about their ability to do well on tests. Examples include: "I take tests with confidence and ease!", "Taking tests is easy for me!", or "I'm going to ace that test!"

Also, have them visualize their success by seeing themselves taking the test with confidence and ease. Positive self-talk (affirmations) and visualization "program" both their conscious mind and their subconscious mind for success so that their thoughts are working for them and not against them.

Second, ask the kids if they feel prepared.

Preparation and practice helps children build confidence in their ability to do well. If a child doesn't feel prepared for an upcoming test, coach her on how to ask her teacher for additional help or practice materials that she can work on after school or at home.

Another great resource is the Internet. The child can ask her parents to search for the topic and the grade level to find additional study materials (i.e. search for "math worksheets fifth grade").

test taking

Third, teach children calming techniques.

When thoughts of failing creep into a child's mind, he will experience feelings of anxiety and fear. These feelings actually change which part or the brain is active while taking the test!

When children are calm, the frontal lobe of the brain is activated. This is where logic and reasoning functions are performed.

In contrast when children are anxious or afraid, the frontal lobe of the brain shuts down and the middle/lower parts of the brain that control emotion and survival become activated. The brain literally cannot think clearly because the brain is busy preparing the body for fight or flight (that is why your palms get sweaty, your heart rate increases and your breathing gets faster when you start feeling worried or afraid. A child's body will respond to the threat of failing a test just like it will respond to the threat of a tiger).

For kids to do well on tests, they must keep the frontal lobes of their brain engaged. And calming techniques can help!

One of the most effective calming techniques is "belly breathing" because it helps children slow their heart rate and calm their bodies.

We recommend teaching kids the "One...Two...Three Belly Breath" technique.

Here's how it works...

First, have kids imagine that their belly is a balloon. When they breathe in tell them to imagine that they are blowing up their "belly balloon." Have them take in a slow deep breath through their nose while counting to three. One.....two....three. Their belly should stick way out as they fill up their "belly balloon." Next have them hold that breath for three seconds. One...two...three. Then tell them to slowly exhale through their mouth and let all of the air out of their "belly balloon." One...two...three. That completes one cycle.

Once they complete the first cycle, have them repeat the cycle again. Usually the body starts calming down after only three or four cycles of belly breaths. This is a great technique for them to use any time they get nervous.

Finally, remember that kids often look to us to see how they should respond to things. If you're anxious about the test then they will feel anxious about the test too. Talk with them about the importance of always doing their best work and let them know that you believe in them and their ability to do well.

For more information about how you can use stories to help kids develop a mindset for happiness, confidence, and success in their lives, visit Adventures in Wisdom to check out a free story.



For breakfast I had a breakfast taco with egg whites, refried black beans, and turkey sausage along with my signature dark chocolate cafe mocha. 


Published in Breakfast Club

I have been working with after school programs across the country since 1998 and there are some things that I have learned that make doing academic enrichment activities more successful with kids after school. To meet the goals of this is after school not more school and kids should be engaged and having fun, here are some helpful tips. They are in no order because I could never decide which was the most important, but I think number 9 is key...stop talking. What would you add?

1. Meet with your school(s) to find out what areas to focus on, where kids need more time, and how you can work together to align with what they are focusing on.
2. Explore existing interests. Poll your children to learn what they are interested in and consider ways to use academic enrichment to focus on these areas. For example, if children show an interest in animals consider children's literature or reference materials about animals that will pique their interest and facilitate conversations. Ask open-ended questions that require students to discuss the text. You will find that children can learn about what they are interested in while building comprehension and vocabulary.
problem solving series future powerpoint template 1110 title13. Allow leaders some choice in what areas of academic enrichment they facilitate so they bring their own interest into afterschool. For example, some leaders might not feel comfortable doing a read aloud, but might be artistic or musical.
4. Make it playful. Choose activities are that are fun, engaging, and hands-on. Afterschool should not feel like more school.
5. Timing is everything. Think about your schedule. If children have choice make sure that the offerings are equal. For example, don't offer basketball and literacy at the same time.
6. Give lead-time to leaders. Give your staff time to think about and prep for what they are going to do with children. Staff benefit greatly from support. Taking time to prepare will help to ensure success.
7. Involve parents and the community. If there is an opportunity to take a field trip or have a visitor come in to talk about a related topic children will be more engaged and more likely to own their learning.
8. Mix it up! Encourage children to work together with multiple age levels. For example, have one age group of kids learn about a topic and give them time to teach another age group in partners or groups.
9. Facilitate more. Talk less. Give kids lots of time to talk to each other about what they are learning. Work on being a "guide on the side" and let the children do the majority of talking and thinking.
10. Put a fresh spin on your existing routine. Look at what you are already doing and think about ways to involve academic enrichment. For example, can the kids play a role in snack by dividing it and/or planning how to serve it?
11. Allow for a learning curve. Embrace that you don't have to know everything. If you don't know the answer to a question work together to figure out how to learn about it.
12. Share what excites you. Show your own excitement about what you are sharing with the kids and chances are they will join you!

I had Trader Joe's Corn Flakes with a sliced banana breakfast.

Published in Breakfast Club

Imagine a table full of a diverse range of vegetables and herbs, including chilies, okra, lemongrass, Swiss chard, gourds, figs, and persimmon. Gardens are places where students can experience all of their senses and be connected to the global world through the natural resources of earth. Gardens, and the people in the community near your garden, are an incredible asset to schools and afterschool programs. Your garden doesn't have to be perfect or huge – just simply a place where growing and learning can take place.


Academic Enrichment
A study from Rutgers Cooperative Extension, "Learning Through the Garden," shows that gardens can function as living laboratories, and students who participate in gardening have a considerable increase in grade point average, utilize new learning styles, and develop their perspectives and ways of learning to incorporate critical 21st century skills like "curiosity, flexibility, open-mindedness, informed skepticism, creativity, and critical thinking."

Here are some activity examples that could be used in a gardening unit:

• Students begin by tending their individual or group plots. After observation of the growth or decay activity in their plot, they can record their learning in an art journal, which can also include charting what foods are grown in global regions.
• Students can go to the kitchen to cook up a new recipe. As your students are working on the recipe, explore culinary traditions, practice global culinary words, and talk about how food connects global regions.
• Research what plants grow in your region versus another region in the world.
• Collect five to ten flowers from the same plant in your garden. Count the number of petals on each flower and create a chart to display your results. Repeat with other types of flowers in the garden. What do the results say about the characteristics of plants? For more math ideas in the garden visit Kids Gardening.
• At the end of an activity, students can take turns practicing leadership with an appreciation circle.

Family and Community Connections
We all know that food brings people together. Gardens are edible, so have students design family and community events around them. Think beyond eating and make it an experience! You can have students find recipes, cook together, decorate the eating space to reflect a highlighted culture, invite local global residents to come and share, and have participants study cultural practices.

Here are some ideas from the California School Garden Network:

• Have students research and showcase cultural or ethnic differences in food consumption and gardening practices. This can be done creatively through poems, interpretative dances, and murals.
• Research cultural dishes and their preparation methods from various origins. Host an "international evening" and provide healthful samplings of fruits and vegetables from those cultures.
• Research cultural holidays and the symbolism of particular fruits and vegetables that are included during those holidays. Plan cultural holiday events to celebrate as family events.

Plan a series where students can meet a gardener each session. This can allow students to develop empathy with farmers and growers around the world. Use video and technology to introduce students to gardeners and growers. Before the live or pre-recorded session, have students research the gardener's country and culture and develop questions to ask. Garden Mosaics has three stories from gardeners that you can use to start your series.

Intergenerational Relationships
Invite adults to your garden and practice intergenerational learning. As adults and youth garden together, students learn about the heritage and culture of their elders, and they create relationships with respect and trust. This can result in building a stronger community. The elders can find satisfaction of serving in their community while passing along their story and history. Read more about intergenerational learning through gardening here.

Ecological Sustainability
Composting and waste reduction teach students sustainable practices and empower them to be a part of the global community. You could start a "caretakers of the earth" club. In addition, students can explore conservation issues from a local and global perspective. Even planting fruit trees around your neighborhood can contribute to the nutrition and air quality of your community. If such a small act of planting trees on the corner can make a dent in the sustainability of a neighborhood, think about the impact that trees and gardens across the world can make on our global food system! The world can rely less on oil and natural gas and more on local, fresh foods.1 Visit the Green Education Foundation for garden plans and topics such as water conservation and recycling.

These ideas are just a starting point. Collaborating with math, science, and art teachers could bring additional ideas of how to use gardens as a hands-on way to enforce what they are learning in those classrooms. Field trips to community gardens and farmers markets can inspire young minds. And if you are in a cold climate, consider learning about greenhouses and hydroponics. These tools allow farmers to simulate a warmer climate and grow various fruits and vegetables all year long. Gardens – inside or outside, big or small – support academic and 21st century skills development.

Additional Global Gardening Examples and Resources:
Global Gardens: A non-profit organization dedicated to empowering students and communities through hands-on science education.

Life Lab: A national leader in the garden-based learning movement that provides workshops, camps, publications, and youth empowerment and food justice programs.

Slow Food USA: Slow Food USA local chapters, members and volunteers build and maintain school gardens, lead cooking classes and work to improve school lunches.

Global Garden Examples: Toronto, Los Angeles, Chicago

BOOST Collaborative's Pinterest: Follow BOOST's Global Garden-Based Learning page for more ideas for your school or out-of-school time program.

1Birch, E.L. & Watcher, S.M. (Eds.). (2008). Growing greener cities. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Image Source: Successful School Gardens Blog

For breakfast I had eggs, cinnamon toast and an iced coffee.

Published in Breakfast Club

"Music is a language that kindles the human spirit, sharpens the mind, fuels the body, and fills the heart." – Erik Jensen

"The arts are far closer to the core of education than are the more exalted subjects." - Abraham Maslow

In this era of standards and accountability, arts are increasingly viewed as a frill and removed from school curriculum.  Brain research suggests that arts can lay a foundation for academic and career success. Science, mathematics, and language require complex cognitive and creative capacities typical of arts learning. Arts promote the development of valuable human neurobiological systems. The systems they nourish include our integrated sensory, attentional, cognitive, emotional, and motor capacities—the driving forces behind all other learning. A strong arts program increases creativity, concentration, problem solving, self-efficacy, and coordination.

museum-of-contemporaryMaking art is a highly cognitive process that involves problem-solving, critical thinking, and creative thinking. Going back more than a decade, neuroscience and cognitive studies have documented the importance of the arts to learning in other domains. Research has shown that visual arts (art production, paper and canvas work, photography, drawing, and painting) improve reading and math scores. Different types of art activate different areas of the brain. Studies report strong links between visual learning and improvement in reading and creativity.

Fine arts programs are known for fostering commitment to task and social skill development. Many children who participate in visual arts programs report gains in self-discipline, work ethic, and teamwork. The neurobiological systems necessary for improved grades include quick thinking, mental model development, task sequencing, memory, self-discipline, problem-solving, and persistence. These and other related skills are developed through dramatic arts.

Music's importance to the brain and learning is also prevalent in long-standing research literature. Music helps people think by activating and synchronizing neural firing patterns that orchestrate and connect multiple brain sites.

Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music, states "Whenever humans come together for any reason, music is there: weddings, funerals, graduation from college, men marching off to war, stadium sporting events, a night on the town, prayer, a romantic dinner, mothers rocking their infants to sleep ... music is a part of the fabric of everyday life." Music is fundamental to our species, maybe even more so than language.

Children involved in music and arts develop better thinking and problem-solving skills, better language skills and more creativity than children who are not. Children of low socioeconomic status who were exposed to music scored higher in math than those who did not.

Perhaps most importantly, it is clear from the research that music can change listeners' emotional states which, in turn, impacts their cognitive performance Music is an example of a stimulus that changes how people feel, which in turn influences how they perform on tests of cognitive abilities. Music serves to convey feelings through the interaction of physical gestures and sound. The musician uses his brain music state to match the emotional state he is trying to express to the listener.

Music arouses the brain and carries words. Music engages multiple areas of the brain and has multiple, far-reaching effects on the mind. Music may be the activity that prepared our ancestors for speech communication and the very cognitive skills necessary to become humans.PHP497AB0A4E30D2

In 2008, the Dana Foundation published Learning Arts, and the Brain, which reported key findings that allow for deeper causal relationships between the arts and the ability of the brain to learn in other cognitive domains.

Key findings include:

  • Performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces attention skills that improve other domains;
  • Music training is linked to the ability to manipulate information in memory that improve other domains;
  • There are links between music practice and geometrical representation;
  • There are correlations between music training and both reading acquisition and sequence learning;
  • Training in acting leads to memory improvement and skills for manipulating semantic information;
  • And learning to dance by effective observational learning transfers to other cognitive skills.

The argument that art and music are frills finds no support in brain research. Evidence is persuasive that our brain is designed for music and the arts, and that a music and arts education program has positive, measurable, and lasting academic and social benefits.

In afterschool programs, arousing music can be used during games or clean-up activities. Relaxing music can be used in a quiet home-like area of the program or as background music during reading. Listening to background music can substantially improve reading comprehension, math scores, history scores, and social skills. Singing in afterschool programs not only stimulates the brain, but is correlated with abstract thinking skills, verbal skills, and higher reading scores. The best afterschool programs truly embrace arts and music as essential practices.

For breakfast today, I had a large glass of iced coffee.

Helpful Readings:

Burton, J., Horowitz., & Abeles, H. (1999). Learning in and through the arts: Curriculum implications. In E. Fiske (Ed.), Champions of change: The impact of the arts on learning. Washington, DC: The arts Education Partnership and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

Catteralll, J., Chapleau, R., & Iwanaga, J. (1999). Involvement in the arts and human development: General involvement and intensive involvement in music and theater arts. In E. Fiske (Ed.) Champions of change: The impact of the arts on learning. Washington, DC: The arts Education Partnership and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

Darby, J., & Catterall, J. (1994). The fourth R: The arts and learning. Teachers College Record, 96(2), 299-328.

Eisner, E. (1998). Does experience in the arts boost academic achievement? Arts Education, 51(1), 5-15.

Gardiner, M. (1996). Learning improved by arts training. Scientific Correspondence in Nature, 381(580), 284.

Gaser, C., & Schlaug, G. (2003). Brain structures differ between musicians and non-musicians. Journal of Neuroscience, 23 (27) 9240 – 9245.

Jensen, E. (2000b). Music with the brain in mind. San Diego, CA: The Brain Store, Inc.

Jensen, E. (2001). Arts with the brain in mind.  San Diego, CA: The Brain Story Inc.

Levitin, D. (2006). This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. Penguin. New York: NY.

MacDonald, R., Gunter, K., & Mitchell, L. (2012). Music, Health, and Wellbeing.  Cognitive performance after listening to music. Oxford Scholarship Online. Retrieved from

Neuro-Education Initiative (2009). Neuroeducation: Learning, arts, and the brain. Findings and challenges for educators and researchers from the 2009 John Hopkins University Summit. Retrieved from

Published in Breakfast Club

As an Out-of-School-Time professional and a true Geek, I am amazed at the ongoing battle between STEM supporters and those who love the Arts. I hear it everywhere I go:

  • "Our program practices STEAM, so that we don't forget about the Arts!"
  • "STEAM is just a bunch of hot air, we need to focus on true STEM."
  • "STEM is just tough to swallow, STEAM gets things moving!"

I am confident that many of you have heard the arguments. I have overheard people describe STEAM advocates as hippies who sit around dreaming of Steampunk adventures in a camp like environment. Likewise, I have heard that STEM advocates just walk around like the Borg in Star Trek trying to assimilate everyone.

I must be fully transparent that I was one of those that had a tough time with the STEAM concept. I just couldn't understand because many of the programs I work with had a great Arts focus and yet hardly did anything with STEM. Why would they need to place an emphasis on Art when they had it down? Its not like I am Arts hater and walk around like Dr. Horrible in my lab coat and rubber gloves trying to destroy anything beautiful in the world. I just know that our world is evolving quickly and the majority of future careers will have a STEM focus. We have a serious supply versus demand issue. Don't believe me? Check out the latest U.S. News & World Report update on the issue called "New STEM Index Finds America's STEM Talent Pool Still Too Shallow to Meet Demand".

I don't know about you but I like an open Internet, clean water, bridges that don't fall down, my iPhone, electricity, and medical technology that saves lives. I also like music, Broadway plays, movies, sculptures, beautiful paintings, transformative literature, and amazing architecture. We need our students to love STEM and the Arts, but do we really need to create an acronym to highlight that. Why not add an R for Reading and call it STREAM? Perhaps we should add another S for Social Studies and call it STREAMS? You see where I am going with this.

Education advocates in the US are focusing on STEM because there is a strong demand for it, but those who believe strongly in the Arts want to ensure that we don't go so far with STEM that we become a Borg-like society. What's the solution? Honestly, I am not sure. I am taking a tactic with my colleagues of simply keeping the conversation going. As we look at the curriculum we design for OST programs, we discuss all aspects of education in general. If we are writing a computer-coding curriculum, we might design the task objective to be a challenge of getting the code to design an illustration based on fractal art equations (see Amazing Seattle Fractals). If we are working on a curriculum for a dance class we might incorporate aspects of Physics in it (see Physics and Dance).

STEM is not always framed like this. Many times STEM is framed in a silo approach. Science must mean biology, Technology must be computers, Engineering is bridge-building, and Math is Olympiads or worksheets! No wonder kids lose interest. We must help our parents, our staff, our colleagues, and our administrators to see beyond the silo approach and be more holistic. We may need more than creative acronyms to do that.

Fortunately, there is some research out there that can help. The FrameWorks Institute has a multitude of reports and general guidance on how we can frame STEM (see K12: STEM Learning). The work the institute has done in understand how the public looks at STEM Learning has been such a value-added asset that is has changed the way we approach STEM in our dealings here in Texas. Another great resource is the Arts Integration Portal sponsored by J.P. Morgan Chase.

So whether you call it STEM & Arts Integration, STEAM, STREAM, or anything else, keep the conversation going. The kids we serve deserve it!

Oh, and today I had a moment of weakness as I had ice cream and chocolate syrup for breakfast!

Published in Breakfast Club

This entry is written in collaboration between ElizaBeth Parker Phillips, Program Development Director for Child Development Inc, and Regan Bynder, Program Projects Manager for Child Development Inc.

Over the past few years there has been lots of chatter about Kindergarteners and Transitional Kindergarteners. The view of the first year of elementary school has changed drastically in the past 30 years let alone the inception. Back when Fredrick Froebel first started Kindergarten in 1837 it was seen as a way to nurture children like you would a garden, teachers providing a fertile ground based on play and practical skills so the young minds could grow and flourish. Since then Kindergarten has moved towards aligning itself with the school day (i.e. sitting at tables or desks and even taking bubble tests). What happened to the program where you learned how to tie your shoe or make friends?

This is where before and after school programs become important. We have the unique opportunity to bring back the basic elements of Kindergarten in the programs we offer our youngest participants. What is it that Kindergarteners need? How do we determine quality for this unique age group?

It has been our job over this past year to take a long hard look at what services we provide Kindergarteners in before and after school programs. How do before and after school programs best support their development while still meeting the needs of our school partners? Over the past year we have conducted many Appreciative Inquiry meetings, held focus groups, and worked towards developing best practices and resources to support the work.

We have found that quality Kindergarten before and after school programs include five basic elements, schedule, activities or curriculum, program space, staff, and partnerships. These elements can look different, based on the need of program and community, but are the underlining keys to providing Kindergarteners and their families the services they need.

  • Schedule: Is your Kindergarten program wrap around care for AM/PM Kindergarten? Do you provide care to full day Kindergarten children? Is your school/ district supporting TK implementation? These are just a few questions to ask yourself when assessing your daily schedule. Consider the space your where your program operates, is there more than one room for your program? If you have to mix age groups together are you mixing K – 1st grade or K – 5th grade? Are you able to rotate groups of children inside and outside to balance their daily experiences?
  • Activities: Once you have a structure for your program day, the schedule, think about the content for each component. Are you planning a balance of child initiated and adult led activities? Is there time for them to recreate as well as practice developing new skills? Is there a balance of active and quite time? Are you linking your curriculum to school day learning?
  • Program Space: Take a moment to think about the space program's physical space. Is there a place for Kindergarten children to relax, be active, engage in dramatic or fine art, build and make? Are materials easy to access? Does the space provide opportunities for sharing, collaboration, creativity? Does the space represent the children and families you serve?
  • Staff: Are your staff energetic, nurturing, curious? Do they enjoy exploring an endless stream of questions, thoughts and ideas? Are they open to not knowing the answer and willing to take a journey to find one?
  • Partnerships: How well do you know your neighborhood school? Are you on a first name basis with the principal and/or office staff? Do you have email addresses for the teachers who work with your children during the school day? Are you happy to support and attend school events? Are you seen as an integral part of the school community?

By focusing attention on Kindergarteners, before and after school programs can hope to provide a high quality service that meets the needs of the children, families, and our school partners. This focused attention should also help bolster program enrollment and build connections to families that will last throughout their child's elementary school experience. By creating experiences for Kindergarteners that are unique for them, meeting their developmental, social, and academic needs we can hopefully bring back some of the original benefits of Kindergarten.

ElizaBeth and Regan will be presenting a workshop on this topic at the 2014 BOOST Conference.

ElizaBeth- This morning I had peanut butter toast with grape jelly and a glass of chocolate milk.
Regan- This morning I had an English muffin, coffee, orange juice, a hardboiled egg and two pieces of sausage.

Published in Breakfast Club

It's testing time again in public schools!  Wooohooooo! Ah yes... Number 2 pencils and bubble-in responses, test taking anxiety and the all encompassing fear that even with all the impressive and meaningful gains your students have made through the year so far they might not do as well as you'd wish. Oh, and your evaluations and merit-based pay increases are on the line to boot!  Oh standardized testing how I love you so!

As educators we are bound to standards and assessments and evaluations that can often blur and transform why we decide to work with youth.  I am a firm believer that learning should be engaging, meaningful, and that all people can live harmoniously and learn from and with one another through the joy of play.  Play is the great equalizer. When we play, we don't see age, color, or gender per se, we are immersed in the moment, and in those moments lie rich teaching and learning opportunities for all involved.  Understanding and utilizing the experiential learning cycle enriches these learning opportunities through reflection and application of  "aha moments" discovered through play, to other areas of the play participant's lives.  This is where the power of this type of learning resides.  Play by itself is a beautiful thing, but when enriched through intentional reflection, players become emotionally engaged in the lessons learned and with the people with whom they've learned and played with.

I feel that play, throughout the lifespan, but particularly in childhood enables the play participants to explore many skills and concepts in a different and safe (play) environment that enables the player to then draw upon the concepts and skills learned through play when situations or life experiences occur that parallel those learned through play.  Some of these "lessons" are then connected consciously, while some of them just become part of the fabric of who we are, or who we have become based on our experiences.

I also feel that, given the recent advances in neuroscience and the discovery and proof of neuroplasticity of the brain, not only during brain development, but throughout the lifespan, that play holds a significant value in the development of healthy synapses, and that we can continue to keep our brains "young" through play.  So, play also serves the purposes of helping people to nurture and develop healthy brain activity through learning about their physical and social worlds by engaging in interesting and meaningful play experiences with others and within different environments.  Movement and interaction in play, as in all experiences, can result in the creation of new neural pathways, which can lead to consequent changes in thought, values, and behavior.

Play engages children because it is fun, self-directed and self-initiated, and play enriches and links to learning in many ways.  During the early stages of play, children learn about object permanence through a good game of "peek a boo", or the relationships of cause and effect, such as when the child pushes a button or turns a crank, an animal pops up from behind the door on a toy, or when I bounce a certain type of rubber ball, it bounces higher than when I drop that big rock on Dad's foot again (ouch!).   Additionally, children begin to understand, albeit in a very elementary and hands-on way, simple physics concepts.

As children grow and move into the next stages of development and become aware that they are social beings, they begin playing cooperatively, sharing materials and ideas in their play.  It is during cooperative play that we begin to really hash out many of the interpersonal skills needed for the rest of our lives.  Skills are learned such as: sharing, collaboration, compromise, problem-solving and conflict resolution.  This type of play, (and while the complexity may grow with the child), becomes the foundation for the type of play that they will mostly engage in throughout the rest of their lives.  This is not to say that we discard solitary play all together, merely that we are hardwired as humans to be with and engage with other humans.  The human animal is playful, and the seemingly simple process of play can have positive influence on and with people.  When people are in joyful, playful interactions they are setting aside more serious personal, community, and cultural differences and they are able enjoy the interactions with those whom they are engaged in playing with.  I believe it was Plato that said something along the lines of "You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a lifetime of work".

I feel that the majority of learning experiences provided for children should be play-based.  I think the extent to which we allow purely self-directed play occur in education should diminish as children develop the cognitive skills to interpret and apply new information and curricula, however I feel that the more we can engage people, children of all ages, in fun and playful learning, the more the learner will find it enjoyable, meaningful, and therefore demonstrate better retention because they will be more able to develop and own a love of learning.

So, as we gear up for this time of THE STANDARDIZED TESTs, please be sure to take some time to nurture and educate kids' (and teachers'!) souls by connecting with people through PLAY.  Give yourself that gift and PLAY!

For breakfast this morning, as I sipped the aromatic French Roast that helps jumpstart my mornings, I played with my food; arranging the bits and pieces of my organic multi-grain English muffin with peanut butter and blueberry jam around to make hairstyles and facial hair on the on the funny-face plate that I borrowed from my son, and began my day with a smile.  PLAY ON!

Published in Breakfast Club

"Five more minutes, please!" - Sound familiar? This was my request to my parents every time we were leaving the pizza place and I had not yet conquered the next level of Pac-Man. I never thought I would hear this from students attending an out-of-school-time program during the summer in Austin, Texas. Yet, this past summer, this request was asked so much that parents spoke to program leadership about extending the summer program beyond the standard four-weeks. Why were kids so excited about staying in an OST program and during summer, no less? Well, it all can be attributed to one word – gaming.

If we actually paid attention to the mainstream press, we would believe that video games were a plague upon our youth. I mean surely these games turn charming, law-abiding young citizens into overweight, diabetic, sociopathic youth that have a loose grip on reality. I have to admit that when I drive in Houston traffic, I wish I had a special missile launcher from SpyHunter to clear the way.
All humor aside, I hear arguments against video games everyday. Yet, I also hear strong, passionate advocates for rote-memorization, use of worksheets, tenacious academic tutorials, and increased standardized testing. We all have our own beliefs on that magic silver bullet that will "fix" our ailing education system as well as our thoughts on what enhances the educational gap we are seeing in our system. I would challenge us to look into new creative paths that take us out of our comfort zones and can be truly tested in innovative out-of-school-time programs. I would like to present three ideas for you to consider.

Number One – Angry Birds! This addicting game can be found on any platform for as low as free to $4.99. In addition to being just fun to play, this game has a ton of educational resources tied in to it. Early learning programs can use Angry Birds to inspire letter recognition and spelling. Elementary programs can use Angry Birds to reinforce number sequencing, basic math, and even delve into drama and art. Take a look at this teacher's blog post regarding the many lessons she has found around the use of Angry Birds. I've used Angry Birds with secondary students to teach upper-level math ranging from basic graphing, to quadratics, ending with parabolas. Our best use of Angry Birds was building a life-sized slingshot that launched angry birds at a wall of boxes in order to knock down the piggies on the boxes. We got the idea from this YouTube video.

Number Two – Portals! You will not find a more interactive, fun, and challenging game than Portal or Portal 2. Initially developed as a puzzle game for Xbox and Playstation, the Portal Video Game series have evolved into one of the simplest ways to teach Physics to youth. Players are guided through a series of puzzle challenges in which they use a portal gun to create entry and exit portals that defy 2 dimensions. Thus gamers are required to use spatial reasoning and logic to play. The great thing is that the company who owns the rights to the game series (Valve) allows educators a free license to some aspects of the game. They have also created a special website that has program-ready lessons available for all. Check out Teach with Portals and let your program jumpstart youth into a real STEM activity.

Number Three – Minecraft! This game has been called a sandbox construction game. While there is a game element to Minecraft, the real power lies in the ability of the user to develop their own world and items in that world. Some people have called Minecraft a digital Lego box and tout the game as having the same impact as Legos (how many of your programs use some aspect of Legos – like Lego Mindstorm?). You can learn more about various lessons, tutorials, and other items from the Minecraft Wiki. If you want to take it step further, check out the new free version for Raspberry Pi. This credit card sized computer is inexpensive (about $25) and is being used all over to teach coding and maker-related activities. Now, it can be used to generate virtual Minecraft Worlds. This takes the T in STEM to a whole new level.

I could go on about the benefits of so many gaming systems that you could implement in your program, but this is supposed to be a blog post, right? I hope that you will check out one of the three options I listed and see if you can turn gaming from what the mainstream press thinks it is, to an amazing tool in the hands of OST educators.

Last, but not least, I had two eggs, a banana, and Crystal Light for breakfast, while playing Disney's Hidden Worlds on my iPad. =)

Published in Breakfast Club

With the New Year comes a time of reflection and renewal, celebrations of past accomplishments, and thoughts for new directions. We all want what's best for our kids, to give them skills to succeed in life.

Have you considered offering experiences that can develop your youths' observational skills and natural ability to wonder? Afterschool is a wonderful place for kids to develop basic life skills – and this can have an even stronger impact when it sparks their interest in the world around them and helps them to say "Wow, I CAN do this!"

Kids love space! Consider adopting space-based science and engineering afterschool programming. Freaked out by the thought? Good STEM programming enables the program leaders to be a "guide on the side" instead of a "sage on the stage". A key ability for doing science as in art, in life, and in many occupations - is good observational skills. Science is not a collection of facts, but starts with observing and wondering.

moonDeveloping observational skills using space themes can be simple – just look up! It's dark during the late afterschool time in the winter, why not look up at the sky? Too many city lights where you are, so you can't see stars? You can see the moon – day or night! Have the kids look for it for a couple of weeks – what do you notice? What is similar each time you look? What is different? Is it in the same place at the same time every night? Can you see it during the day? Does it have the same shape each time you see it? Do you notice any patterns? What does that lead you to wonder: What's it like there? Why do we want to go there and other places beyond earth? How do we get there? Pick some "wonders" that your youth have, and brainstorm ways to look for answers, then support them in looking. (You don't have to know the answers, just guide the students in where to look, such as the library, teachers, and the internet, for example visit this site).

[Image of the moon from the International Space Station.]

Kids may hunger for more, and that's where NASA comes in. The exploration of space is alive and well, with robotic explorer spacecraft – right now – visiting other worlds, from orbiters around the moon, to the Curiosity Rover on Mars, to the first spacecraft to fly by distant Pluto. These are exciting and current real-world examples of science, math, engineering, and technology! Consider these accessible and fun space-themed, hands-on, project-based afterschool activity guides and professional development opportunities from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

We feature the excitement of space science and exploration through experimentation, through design and build of models, through literacy and art, and even through kids contributing their "citizen science" observations to help scientists look at real data from other worlds!

kids at nasa[Kids show their models of a comet, made from cotton-ball and pipe-cleaners.]

Don't know how to get started implementing STEM in afterschool? There is some great work being done in California to support your program – all we need is you!

Experiment to find what sparks interest and passion in your kids – and in yourself – and find yourself looking up and saying along with your kids "Wow, I CAN do this!"

My breakfast was greek yogurt with fresh berries, a banana, decaf coffee, and a big glass of water – light and healthy to feed my enthusiasm for observing the world around me – and the wonders of the beautiful sky that we all share!

Published in Breakfast Club

Last year, the Hour of Code global project launched to spread the field of Computer Science to students everywhere. Classrooms across the globe participated in what was one of the most widespread, Ed-tech engagements, ever. As of this entry, over 24 million students participated in the Hour of Code and collectively, they entered almost 1 billion lines of programming.

As out-of-school specialists, one of our primary responsibilities includes the curating and testing of a various curriculum resources. Before the Hour of Code hit the scene in December of 2013, our 5th and 6th grade students were fortunate enough to have already been involved in computer programming lessons and tutorials through Edmodo's LearnStreet App. The difficult part was trying to demonstrate to them the benefits of learning a computer language.

Fortunately, here at Loma Verde Elementary, we have several components which worked in our favor.

  • Access - Our great relationship with the school principal allowed us to use the computer lab freely – this meant that on any given morning or afternoon, we had access to their PC's. It was such a personal victory to hear students in our morning program would oftentimes want to code, first thing in the morning!
  • Examples - I had pulled a collection of webpages and simple examples which exhibited the results of hand-coded projects – I actually think the students found this to be particularly beneficial because they were able to see the possibilities come into fruition.
  • Badges - I did the LearnStreet lessons beforehand and printed out each badge as I earned them myself – this way, every time a student completed a section, we'd print out a copy of their badge and put it on a wall next their names. Badges are the new motivators, educators everywhere should use them. The wall was entitled The Fresh Coders and was on display in my office.

One of the most interesting aspects of this entire project was how computer coding broke the language barrier. With the Loma Verde learning community based out of Chula Vista, CA, many of our students are English Language Learners. Still, even those who struggle with speaking fluent English would approach one of our staff members and ask questions like: "Why isn't my paragraph showing up?" or "Mr. Randy, where do I close the tag?"

It is my personal belief that learning to code can not only provide students with a chance for more technology exposure, but it can also be an opportunity for them to explore the languages of the 21st century. Additionally, this gives them more freedom to create, problem-solve, and collaborate. When showing my students an infographic of the kinds of salaries that software engineers and web-developers make, this enticed them even more! After all, what kid does not have dreams of being "rich" one day?

If your school has not yet had a chance to take part in this fantastic global project, I sincerely encourage you to try it out. As out-of-school professionals, we have the opportunity to introduce new material, lessons, and projects to our students that they would normally not have time for during the regular school day. In fact, I encourage you and your staff teams to give it a try too! Who knows, maybe your school has the individual who will invent the next major social media guru. What we do know is that our students are inventive, thoughtful, and creative – they are, ultimately, Makers in the Making.

For breakfast I had: Hazelnut coffee with homemade Chilaquiles - delicious!

Published in Breakfast Club
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