The Power of Play

By Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., author of Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior: Create Responsive Environments Where Young Children Thrive

The Power of PlayDid you know that all mammals play? And scientists have identified play-like behaviors in other species as well, such as alligators and wasps. Over millions of years, evolution has eliminated traits that do not serve to propagate a species. So if animals play, it must mean there is a good reason for it. Mother Nature is pretty smart, because it turns out that play is extremely beneficial for all young, including human children.

Play prepares children for the challenges they will face as adults. It is through play that children develop and practice skills that will help them survive and navigate the world. From the outside, children’s play may look frivolous or like a waste of time, but research is clear that play is an essential element of childhood—one that needs to be honored and supported.

Children are active learners; they learn more when they are actively involved in the process (as opposed to being passive recipients of another’s knowledge). In a 2009 paper published by the Alliance for Childhood, authors Edward Miller and Joan Almon discuss the value of play as an active learning technique. They extoll play as an invaluable learning opportunity for children. They go on to attribute at least part of our nation’s academic struggles to a lack of play in early childhood.

In my book Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior, I introduce the HOMES scale as a tool one can use to assess whether a learning activity is active. A close look at the categories helps show just why play is such an effective learning tool for children.

  • Hands-on. As children play, they are manipulating real objects and using real tools to make sense of their world. As the great early childhood educator Bev Bos said, “If it hasn’t been in the hand and the body, it can’t be in the brain.” Play provides lots of opportunities for that hand-brain connection.
  • Open-ended. Play has no predetermined end, and there is no one way to navigate a play experience. The story arc can head in any direction a child takes it.
  • Meaningful. We learn more when we connect personally to what we are learning. In play, children reflect their lives and their understandings of the world; never is learning more meaningful than when it is constructed through play
  • Engaging. In the same way that learning needs to be hands-on, it also needs to be “brains-on.” We want children’s brains to be engaged during the process. Boring tasks of repetition or rote learning do not ignite children’s passion for learning. In play, children are using their brains to solve problems and navigate relationships with other children.
  • Sensory-oriented. The only way we are able to build our knowledge is through our senses. We learn as we see, listen, feel, smell, and taste. As children play, they use all their senses to explore their worlds. They deepen understanding as they encounter their surroundings.

Because children are so actively engaged when they play, play helps them learn all sorts of things. But let’s focus on three specific skills or understandings children develop through play that will serve them well as adults.

Symbolism. The foundational understanding of literacy is that the squiggles we call “letters” form words that symbolize ideas. When we symbolize the spoken word with the written word, we are able to communicate ideas much more effectively over space and time.

Now, picture a toddler who holds a shoe to his face and begins to babble. For that child, the shoe has magically transformed into a phone. In this moment, as one item comes to symbolize another, you are witnessing a nascent understanding of a concept that will someday transform into literacy. As children engage in pretend play, they are building a foundation on which we can build strong readers and writers.

Social Skills. As adults, we are regularly called upon to navigate relationships with people with whom we share this planet. Sometimes we have to wait for a turn, sometimes we have to negotiate a resolution to a conflict, sometimes we have to work with others to complete a task, and sometimes we even have to move on when we don’t get what we want.

When children move into their preschool years, they move from playing near other children to playing with them. As they make this transition, they are increasingly challenged to use and practice social skills. These are the skills they will call upon to work as part of a team on an important project, to mediate a conflict in a place of business, or to move on to bigger and better things after an inevitable disappointment.

Critical Thinking. It isn’t easy to build a tower from blocks, especially one that will stand up even though it is seven stories tall. With each decision a child makes during the construction process, the building will either be stronger—or crash to the ground. In play episodes like this, children must weigh possibilities, choose an option, and deconstruct results.

In the adult world, there rarely are cut-and-dried options. When we make decisions, we use the same mental processes that we developed when we were building block towers or putting together puzzles or painting a masterpiece at an easel. These seemingly simple play experiences require children to employ deep thinking skills. If children are able to practice these skills when there are relatively harmless consequences (the tower crashes, the last puzzle piece doesn’t fit right, the picture doesn’t turn out as desired), they will be better able to think through situations that could have more lasting repercussions.

If we do not understand the power of play, we might be tempted to dismiss it as a pointless diversion of the immature. We may try to rush children through playful episodes to get them focused on “the business of learning.” However, when we look at play through the lens of brain development and active learning, we come to realize that play is the business of childhood.

And the best part? Play is a whole bunch of fun! So instead of trying to draw children into your world, enter theirs. You might find that along with feeding your soul, play gives your brain a workout as well.

Michelle SalcedoMichelle Salcedo, M.Ed., is the chief academic officer at Sunshine House Early Learning Academy, a chain of over 120 childcare centers located across the United States. Her articles on young children frequently appear on the Sunshine House’s website and in the popular childcare journal Exchange. She has worked in the field of early childhood for over thirty years, starting as a “teacher’s helper” in her younger brother’s center. She has served as a teacher, director, trainer, and family educator in numerous childcare settings across Michigan, South Carolina, and Spain. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina.

Uncover the Roots of Challenging BehaviorMichelle is the author of Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior: Create Responsive Environments Where Young Children Thrive.

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Print and Share: 3 Reasons to Write About Yourself

By Garth Sundem, author of Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Challenges: Overcoming Adversity Around the World

Print and Share: 3 Reasons to Write About YourselfThink about your assignments. How many ask kids to look outward—to research another culture or another time, to describe another person’s life and achievements, to imagine another world with another heroic protagonist, or to dissect the plot, feelings, and meaning of a book that is another person’s thoughts? It makes sense: One aspect of teaching is helping kids come in contact with knowledge and influences they would never stumble across on their own. But another aspect of teaching is helping students know and value themselves. We can help students take in experiences and ideas, but then what happens to these experiences inside each student? Like rock tumblers, students toss and transform the things we teach them, polishing the knowledge into unique aspects of who they are. And the only way to discover the unique shine of these ideas is to ask kids to look inward. One way to do that is to ask kids to write about themselves. Instead of looking out to gather ideas, they look in to discover meaning.

There are a million reasons to have kids write from their memories. Here are three for you to describe, or print and distribute, next time your schedule allows for a few minutes of guided introspection.

3 Reasons to Write About Yourself

1. You’ll write better.
A huge part of good writing is in the details: A character drinking a Pepsi is very different from a character drinking a Fanta. It’s much more powerful to describe a character surviving in a forest by gathering miner’s lettuce and quickweed than it is to say that a character ate plants. There are different ways to get these all-important details. A nonfiction writer might get details through research and interviews, a historical fiction writer might get details by visiting museums and historical sites, a fantasy writer might get details by training his or her imagination to deliver things no one else has come up with yet, and a memoir writer might get details from memory. Let me tell you, memory is by far the easiest place to go for details. In your memory are stored things you know that no one else knows—for example, the rock under which you buried special baseball cards in a jar when your family moved to a new house—and, importantly, how you felt about these things. Think precisely about how you felt after striking out in the ninth inning of your last baseball game. Or about that time you got up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water and found your mom crying at the kitchen table. Use your memories as the best, easiest, richest source of details—both physical and emotional.

Print and Share: 3 Reasons to Write About Yourself2. Writing about yourself helps you understand who you are.
Living your life can feel like driving a speedboat through rough seas—most of the time, you just do your best to miss the big waves and try not to capsize. In other words, things happen to you and just keep happening. Maybe once in a long while, you get to talk things through with a friend or trusted adult, but mostly you’re caught up in a world of doing. Writing about your life forces you to take a closer look at who you are. That’s because even the most straightforward description of an event can’t help but include your perspective and your interpretation. Putting words on a page can be like yelling your memories in a cistern: The echoes keep coming back. And each time they do, you have another opportunity to discover what your memories mean and how you fit into the fabric of your experiences.

3. Writing helps you remember.
By now we’ve all read enough post-apocalyptic fiction to make nightmares for at least the next millennium. You know, The Hunger Games, Divergent, and all the rest. But now imagine a truly terrifying future: Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and Facebook all cease to exist! And suddenly you can’t remember that awesome vacation you took last summer. It’s not long before you can’t even remember your own name. Like posting a picture on Instagram, writing about the events in your life can help you remember them. But rather than just keeping track of events in a diary as a way to spark your memory, when you write about your life, consider writing in a way that could help readers other than you experience this same memory. Ask yourself what readers need to know in order to interpret and experience these memories in the same way you do.

Maybe you haven’t climbed Mount Everest or fought a dragon or saved the world from a network of super spies. But your experiences are no less important! There are things you know that no one else on Earth knows. And there are things that you could know more about if only you took the time to explore them more fully. Writing is your chance. Instead of looking out into the world to find something awesome to write about, look in at yourself, your experiences, and your feelings. Tell the story of you.

Author Garth SundemGarth Sundem is a TED-Ed speaker and former contributor to the Science Channel. He blogs at GeekDad and He has been published in Scientific American, Huffington Post Science, Fast Company, Men’s Health, Esquire, The New York Times, Congressional Quarterly, and Publishers Weekly. Garth grew up on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, two kids, and a pack of Labradors. He is the author of the books in the Real Kids, Real Stories series and STEAM In a Jar®.

Free Spirit books by Garth Sundem:

Real Kids Real Stories Real ChallengesReal Kids, Real Stories, Real Character

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Expanding Your Circles of Personal and Professional Support

By Sandra Heidemann, M.S., Beth Menninga, M.A.Ed., and Claire Chang, M.A., coauthors of Intentional Teaching in Early Childhood

Expanding Your Circles of Personal and Professional SupportAna had had a very long day. She sat down to write notes on a child’s behaviors that had troubled her. But she felt so tired that she just sat there. The day started wrong: Her car wouldn’t start. She had to get a ride to work. Then she had a full class all day. Two of her children were absent, so the director asked her to take two children from the other preschool classroom. She couldn’t go outside because it was too cold, and it felt like the children were “climbing the walls.” It left her feeling like she would like to climb the walls too. As she thought about her day, she almost felt like quitting. Then Tesha, the teacher from the classroom next door, popped her head in and thanked Ana for taking two extra children for the day. She shared that her assistant teacher had gone home sick and, with a sub in her room, it had made the day go more smoothly to have two less children in the room. After Tesha left, Ana realized some of the weight of her day had lifted just by talking with her colleague.

On days like this, discouragement can take over and leave you feeling alone and hopeless that anything can change. How do you keep centered, focused, and ready to be with children? How do you find the support you need to keep going?

Part of what keeps you going are what we call circles of support. Even though you may feel all alone after a difficult day, you have people and organizations around you to help you cope with your stress and give you opportunities to grow and develop your professional skills. These circles of support surround you even though you may not always feel them supporting you.

Reflect on the following questions as we discuss several circles of support:

  1. Which circles of support do I value and use the most?
  2. Are there circles of support I would like to strengthen?
  3. Are there circles of support I would like to add?

Coach or Mentor
You may have a coach available who can observe you and give feedback on a regular basis. Or you may have worked with another teacher or mentor who modeled successful strategies with traumatized children. You may have had a coach for a specific learning area such as literacy or math. These professional supports become a part of how you approach your work. You may not see them every day, but they are part of how you approach every child.

We’ve already discussed valuing that teacher or mentor who modeled strategies to deal with difficult situations in the classroom. But you can also learn from your peers. They might help you find cheap art supplies, develop a new trick to get children’s attention at group, and design a new dramatic play theme. You might vent to each other about your frustrations in a safe space. They might not have an answer to your questions, but they can provide the empathy and common experience that helps you tackle the hard issues once again. You and your colleagues can form a community of practice that offers a place to reflect on the issues you face.

Your supervisor can provide more than rules and regulations. Good supervisors can offer suggestions on how to deal with difficult situations involving parents and children. They can let you know you are doing a good job when you have a particularly bad day, and they can offer time off when you need it. They can provide time for sharing and problem-solving at staff meetings. Building trust with your supervisor will provide ongoing support, especially when things are difficult.

Expanding Your Circles of Personal and Professional SupportOrganization
Organizations support you by offering a salary, benefits, time off, and family leave if necessary. It is important not to minimize this vital support. When these supports are sufficient, you will worry less about yourself and your family and have more energy for teaching. Organizations also provide important ways for you to grow and learn, such as training, time to reflect with other teachers, and break times to rest and renew.

The families of young children are often very supportive of the work you are doing. They see you as an extension of their family, as someone who cares about and cares for their beloved child. You may hear complaints from parents and focus on the negative content. Try to look past parents’ complaints and see how much they care for their children and how they want the best for them. Focus on how parents express their appreciation of you. Notice how they ask you questions about their children, confident that you will help them.

Personal Circles of Support
Ask yourself about your personal circle of support, your own family and friends. How do they support you in your work? When you need to talk, who do you talk to? Who do you trust to both support and challenge you? Whether you have a large family or one friend, this circle of support sustains you. You can discharge or vent your emotions and come back to work with renewed energy and vision.

There is another way you build your own emotional reservoir. Think about the community you create in your own classroom. Reflect on what gives you joy about your work every day. Is it that child who finally participates in playtime successfully? Is it planning a lesson or study that the children love? Is it something funny that a child does or says? Remembering these moments can help you keep in touch with why you began your journey as a teacher.

As Ana thought about her day, she considered her circles of support and how she could expand them. She decided to talk to her colleague in the next room about the child who wasn’t talking much and ask the director for some suggestions for large-motor activities indoors. She also remembered a special moment from her day. She had just read the book Calm-Down Time by Elizabeth Verdick, and afterward her whole group practiced breathing together. And that had given her joy.

Sandra HeidemannSandra Heidemann, M.S., is a decades-long veteran of early childhood education with an emphasis on special needs. A past board president of the Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children (MnAEYC), Sandra has published in Young Children and Exchange magazines and is the coauthor of Play: The Pathway from Theory to Practice, published by Redleaf Press. She lives in Minnesota.


Beth MenningaBeth Menninga, M.A.Ed., has over three decades of experience in early childhood education, including teaching in preschool classrooms and coordinating professional development initiatives on infant/toddler caregiving, early literacy, and early math. Beth has also coauthored articles for Young Children and Exchange magazines. She is currently project coordinator at the Center for Early Education and Development at the University of Minnesota.

Claire ChangClaire Chang, M.A., is senior program officer for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota Foundation and is a former West Ed instructor. She has served on the governing board and accreditation council of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and currently serves on the board of directors of MnAEYC and Hope Community Services. Claire lives in Minnesota.


Intentional TeachingSandra, Beth, and Claire are coauthors of Intentional Teaching in Early Childhood: Ignite Your Passion for Learning and Improve Outcomes for Young Children.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Using Micro-Affirmations with Students

By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW

Using Micro-Affirmations with StudentsA few years ago, I worked with a student who used a nickname, and I assumed that she liked this nickname. Then one day, while doing a group activity with students, the topic of “liking your own name” was raised. Some shared that they liked their name, while others gave examples of more desirable monikers—a typical “tween” conversation. Yet something more important came out of this discussion: The nicknamed student stated that she not only loathed her given name, but she found her nickname only slightly more tolerable. She also admitted this was the reason she neglected to write her name on her work. Sensing her discomfort with the topic, I moved the group on and decided to return to it with her privately at another time.

When I followed up with this student, I learned that she did not like her given name because none of her teachers ever said it right. She told me she hated hearing her name said incorrectly every day, and she added, “It made me really start to hate my name.” Finally, she opted for the nickname that she didn’t really like but that spared her from hearing her (beautiful) name butchered all day, every day. This was a powerful discovery for both of us.

Now it is true that this student’s name was unique, particularly for those outside of her culture since it required a certain accent. However, in that meeting, it became clear that this child felt that no one cared enough to try. So on that day, I learned how to say her name correctly. I asked her to break it down for me, and I said it to her over and over (and over) until I finally had it. Undeniably, I initially sounded awkward fumbling and failing. But it wasn’t impossible. And I could actually feel her discomfort shifting, rightfully, back onto me. In this way, I was able to understand this student’s sense of unease and communicate to her that she deserved better. She laughed at me and I laughed at myself, but I made it known that it was important to me to honor who she was. And I hope that she left that day believing that there is absolutely nothing wrong with her name or the culture that her name reflects.

Micro-Inequities and Micro-Affirmations
It is my opinion that this student had been experiencing a micro-inequity. MIT’s Mary Rowe defines micro-inequities in the publication “Micro-Affirmations & Micro-Inequities” as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard to prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’” While the mispronunciation of this student’s name was likely completely unintentional on the part of the educators in her life, it certainly had an impact on her.

When I sat down to write this blog post, I recalled this encounter, and I considered that I had provided a micro-affirmation to this young person. Micro-affirmations, according to Rowe, are “apparently small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard to see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed. Micro-affirmations are tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening.” While we may not always be able to avoid micro-inequities, we can learn to be more aware, and we can make a conscious effort to use micro-affirmations to help balance things out as much as possible.

Using Micro-Affirmations with StudentsIt’s Okay to Make Mistakes
I truly hope that if you have difficulty pronouncing names, you are not hearing this as a rebuke or judgment. Names can be so hard! Believe me, I get it. And I am not immune to mistakes. There may be a name that stumps you no matter how many times you try, but the point is, we need to care enough to try. This is what micro-affirmations are all about—including and honoring the individual identities of each of your students. So let’s simply own our mistakes when we make them (another great practice to model for our students) and try our best moving forward. It’s what we want from our students. And that is all there is to learning anything, right?

Ways to Use Micro-Affirmations

  • Find out what you can about a student’s name and how it is pronounced. Take the time to ask students to say their names and tell the class what they know about their names (the meaning of the name, why they have it). Make sure to ask students if they prefer to be called something else. You may stumble with pronunciation, but a genuine effort to get it right is an example of a micro-affirmation. If you are embarrassed and give up trying, you risk unintentionally implying that your own discomfort about making a mistake is more important than students’ discomfort about hearing their names pronounced incorrectly.
  • Create classroom meetings/circle times where everyone’s names are used. Encourage the class to join in when a student is done sharing, to respond collectively to that student using their name. “Thanks for sharing, [name]!” Ask if anyone has a connection with this student. These practices are inclusive and help build relationships. Consider that students who don’t wish to share in this format can still benefit from hearing an acknowledgment of their presence: “We are happy you’re here today, [name]!”
  • Try to refrain from making assumptions about students’ experiences. Has your childhood taught you that running downstairs on Christmas morning to a living room filled with gifts under the tree is “the” quintessential holiday experience? If so, don’t feel too bad—mainstream television and advertising campaigns reinforce this narrative as well. Consider taking a pause to recognize that this is not the norm for all families. Clearly not all families celebrate Christmas. Even among those that do, they might not have the tree and the gifts, and many students don’t have two floors in their living space. If we create writing prompts or initiate discussions with this “running downstairs” narrative as a presumption, we might, with this micro-inequity, cause unintentional harm for kids. We do not wish for our students to feel that they exist outside of “normal.”
  • Honor diversity and leave things open-ended. While it’s important to be aware of diversity, you can go further by initiating conversation that encourages and validates diversity. By inviting students to share their experiences in whatever shape they take, we create a culture of inclusivity and remind students that “normal” can look many different ways. Consider prompts such as, “Tell me about what your birthday means in your life,” rather than something like, “What was the best birthday party you ever had?” Provide open-ended chances for all kids to share, with frequent reminders that we are all different and that this makes us special. Caring about creating individual connections paves the way for micro-affirmations to do their work. Trust that this can go a long way for your students.

How Kids Feel with Us Matters
Using micro-affirmations allows us to foster healthy, connected relationships with students so they feel how much they matter to us. And when students feel they matter, they tend to find more success in their academics.

Students sometimes complain that they don’t like their teachers. Often when I explore this further with a student, what I learn is that the student actually feels as though the teacher doesn’t like him or her. I don’t know of any educators who want students to think they do not like them. This is something we do have control over! Micro-affirmations can include many of the things discussed in this post but also simple things such as having something unique you share with each student (a personal joke, handshake, or silly but respectful nickname).

After all, as Carl W. Buehner said: “They may forget what you said—but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Amanda SymmesAmanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6) and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and joy in the world. She enjoys writing, knitting, laughing, walking, and using mindfulness. Connect with Amanda on Twitter @LicswAmanda and on her blog

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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How Children Learn Bias

By Stephanie Filio

How Children Learn BiasBias does not stem from fact, so the concept can be abstract and difficult to grasp. Bias is the manifestation of deeply rooted connections our brains have made between our experiences, things we are told, and grouped concepts from our environment. Preconceived (and often misconstrued) thought patterns, such as bias, can make us behave in irrational ways.

Take my own personal story of bias: I often associate wooden spoons more with discipline than with cooking. When I cook today, I prefer to use plastic utensils, just because they have a stronger association with kitchenware for me. I don’t even think about it; it just seems to make more sense. Think that’s crazy? You might not if you also grew up in a house where wooden spoons were used to keep your hands out of the cooking dinner or to correct a sarcastic remark. In my childhood home, wooden spoons were a highly effective parental disciplinary tool. Obviously, this example of bias is not as serious as bias about people is, but even bias as simple as the bias I hold toward wooden spoons can be incredibly destructive to a growing person, creating a lifetime of misinformation and missed opportunities.

Any cognitive reasoning, such as bias, is the result of attempting to understand new material and figuring out where to place it for long-term storage. How much and in what way we process information is largely dictated by our cognitive and developmental capacities at the time. When our understanding is limited, our brains attempt to fill in the holes, too often with incorrect information. Once committed, our incorrect filler information takes a lot of effort to change. During childhood, when our understanding and logic are still expanding, we are especially susceptible to developing these faulty fragments. Luckily, kids spend a lot of their time in schools, where educators can create an enriching and open environment that battles the development of a biased mindset.

Back to the Basics
To understand how someone develops bias, we have to understand how a person develops their logic in the first place. After all, concepts such as racism, bias, and prejudice are just ruminated opinions brought on by thoughts. One of my favorite theorists, Jean Piaget, identified four stages of cognitive development in children. Using these developmental stages, we can develop a framework for a positive acquisition of healthy open-mindedness to counteract the development of bias and prejudice.

  • Sensorimotor (ages 0–2). In this stage, children start to find awareness of their environment and objects. They are exploring their environment with each sense and learning what things are based on reactive information. This is where little people are touching, pulling, grabbing, rubbing, and tasting everything around them to gain data.
  • Preoperational (ages 2–7). This major stage in development brings about a higher awareness of knowledge as children begin grouping objects and information together. Children early in this stage may draw inaccurate conclusions based on a lack of logical sense. For example, a dog and a bunny are both furry, so you can call them both dogs, until you incorporate data on sound. When sound is incorporated, dog gets its own separate category because of its bark.
  • Concrete operational (ages 7–12). Analogies and more concrete logic can be understood with specific and narrow concepts. Play is still very important, since this is a time when children can understand the difference between reality and fantasy. Science class is often a favorite during this stage, because concepts such as cause and effect and conservation are newly understood. Labs are like a personal magic show!
  • Formal operational (ages 12–adult). In the adolescent years, kids have more understanding about abstract thoughts and decision-making. Universal concepts such as justice are strengthened in this stage, and possibilities can be weighed with reason. Personality and moral affiliations are being secured, bringing on those strong teen stances we have come to know and love!

As children grow, there is so much at work that influences their worldview. At different ages, children have varying deduction skills that they inherently use to categorize people, often by assigning desirable or undesirable labels, such as competence or reliability, to a person or group. This process can radically change intrinsic or extrinsic perceptions children have of themselves and their role with other people. When we provide children skills to explore and interpret the diverse world around them, we help them diminish bias by giving them more opportunity to have broader categorization.

  • Allow exploration. From birth until adulthood, there is no better lesson for a child than learning how to be a lifelong learner. Giving students opportunities to explore their environment in enriching ways will help harness a lifestyle of fearless exploration. When the classroom inspires discovery (as opposed to personal assumption), students take that quality with them when they leave school. In- and out-of-school field trips, curious teachers with a zest for learning with students, and lessons that have student-led experiments offer abstract thinking opportunities.
  • Exposure. In addition to exploration, children benefit from meaningful and purposeful exposure to diverse things and thoughts. After all, the world is much larger than their own backyard! Exposure to world cultures and geography not only helps children reduce biased thoughts about people and places they don’t know, it also helps them set their sights higher! Some obvious and subtle methods of exposure include video chatting with people from around the world, allowing students to see and feel foreign money, decorating your space with global transportation maps, and encouraging students to share their own cultures and identities.
  • Debate and questioning opinions. To conquer bias students might encounter at home or in the community, they have to know how to hold a healthy debate. Lessons that encourage students to question what they are told help them do the same when their brain is considering new or contradictory information. Offering experiences where students can have debates, act as moderators, and have roundtable discussions helps students find their voice and their logic. It can seem chaotic at times, but with practice, students can create a respectful discussion culture in the classroom, where they begin to look at information through a nonjudgmental lens.

What biased thinking lacks is a true sense of collaboration. Observation through a single viewpoint excludes the diverse perspectives of others. By teaching growing children that all people, places, and things are multidimensional, we cut off opportunities to adopt biased thinking. Open-ended belief systems give students room to continue learning without a need to come to a finite conclusion with limited understanding. Creating this humanitarian environment in the classroom offers a model of open-minded behavior. Unbiased learners can then work in harmony with their expansive environments, have richer relationships, find further-reaching opportunities for growth, and feel free to use any kitchen utensil with ease!

Stephanie FilioStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

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