NAEYC Conference 2008

By Lisa Wesley, Teacher

“There’s enormous power in reading aloud to kids,” said University of Delaware professor and author, John Pilkulski, Ph.D., while lecturing on promoting preschool language and literacy at this year’s conference for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Thousands of early childhood professionals, including Bing teachers Charlene Larson, Colin Johnson, Lars Gustafson and myself, gathered in Dallas, Texas, this past November for the world’s largest early-childhood conference. During the four-day conference, attendees were able to attend workshops given by a diverse group of early-childhood leaders on topics ranging from curriculum to leadership to public policy.

Pilkulski, who was lecturing with Sue Bredekamp, Ph.D., early childhood consultant, and Lesley Morrow, Ph.D., Rutgers University professor of literacy, emphasized that promoting language and literacy must be intentional. He stated that building vocabulary is important and that the texts read to children should be appropriately challenging. Some books, he claimed, should be read several times to help build vocabulary and comprehension. Also, Pilkulski recommended that non-fiction texts offering explanations and information should also be used, adding that they often appeal to children, especially boys.

Bredekamp, one of the editors of the NAEYC publication, Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs, spoke about the volume of learning that is accomplished in the early years of childhood, emphasizing vocabulary and social-emotional accomplishments. She stated, “Children who have larger emotional vocabularies are better at regulating their emotions.” She encouraged participants to help children develop sustained shared thinking—talking about what’s going on in your mind—by using questions or statements such as “Tell me how you came up with that.” She also counseled participants to avoid conversation closers, such as using pat phrases like, “That’s very interesting,” and to instead use more conversation stretchers that focus on details, share experiences and give plenty of time for responses, e.g., “What do you think will happen when the eggs hatch?”

Morrow stated that a quality preschool can serve to enhance a child’s vocabulary. He felt that it is crucial to have excellent teachers who are able to blend child-guided and adult-guided learning experiences. Morrow also emphasized the consideration of physical space in literacy centers in the classroom, stating that books should be organized and there should be private spots for children as well as rocking chairs and/or other comfortable seating. All three speakers noted that skills obtained during this period in children’s lives are an important predictor of future success.

Another workshop, given by Terri Emberling, MA, LPC, focused on superhero play in preschools. Emberling is the director of Relationship Roots, a program that started out as a therapeutic preschool and now offers training and workshops to early-childhood education professionals. She began with a discussion of how people address superhero play in their programs. This type of play, in which children pretend to be characters such as Spiderman, Batman or ninjas, has become a hot topic among educators because it often involves boisterous play and other activities that can frighten or physically overwhelm some children. Emberling continued by talking about common adult concerns about this type of play, including the possibility that children may hurt themselves or others, that it may lead to aggression later in life, or that it may cause them to ignore other learning opportunities in the classroom. Some programs try to resolve their concerns by banning the play, but she points out that when teachers ban superhero play, children do it secretly.

The advantages of superhero play, Emberling states, are that children are able to work through issues of power, fairness, fear and anxiety, life and death, and work on problem solving. She stated that because children are exposed to scary information and images, they may need opportunities to process this information. “Children need to play to understand the difference between fantasy and reality.” She also states that research has found that healthy rough-and-tumble play leads to greater skill and experience in handling adversity without aggression as teens and adults. She understands that there are also risks to this play and encourages programs to create a policy that works for them. Emberling offered some guidelines to help with this task. She suggested using transitional play, something more straightforward such as pretending to be firefighters, to set up rules that can then be transferred to superhero play. She also suggested negotiating and setting clear, respectful limits that keep in mind physical and emotional safety as well as location and materials. Last, she emphasized understanding the superhero story line and adapting it so children can identify with the characters, having one or more characters be good, and having a problem to overcome. Through this play, she says, children learn how to get along in the real world.

Among the other events at the conference, there were performances by various children’s performers, including one given by Ella Jenkins, an 84-year-old children’s musician. She engaged the crowd in several songs, and sang many of her familiar classics.

Nancy Hertzog, Ph.D., Lilian Katz, Ph.D., professor emeritus, and Marcia Burns, all of University Primary School at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gave the workshop, “En-hancing Social Competencies in Early Childhood Classrooms.” Their school uses the project approach, which they describe as an in-depth investigation of worthwhile topics. In other words, teachers choose a topic that the children have been interested in, such as insects, and help children to learn more about the topic by allowing them to investigate it and by incorporating this investigation into all areas of the curriculum. At their program they divide children into small sub-groups, which take on a small topic and report to others. They point out that their process necessitates social interactions by requiring children to question, discuss, collaborate and report to one another while investigating their topics.

Rebecca Wilson of Black Hawk College gave a workshop on supporting second language learners in the classroom. She stated that research demonstrates that the longer children’s primary language is supported, the better they do. Support may range from allowing children to use their home language to teachers learning a few words in a child’s home language. She discussed typical language development of second language learners, information she adapted from the book, One Child, Two Languages by P. Tabors. Wilson also suggested teaching strategies like repeating language, narrating children’s play, expanding on their words and using visual cues. She believes it is important to include relevant items from a child’s culture in the classroom, such as play food, dolls and books.

The importance of thoughtful planning when working with young children was a recurring theme at the conference. This is evidently what people had in mind when traveling from all parts of the country to share knowledge and hear new ideas about early childhood. This conference offered an excellent opportunity for educators to share new information and connect with colleagues and resources, with the goal of better serving young children and their families.