How to engage girls in science, technology, engineering & math

August 26, 2015

Author Ann Gadzikowski recently shared her perspective on girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, & math) with the attendees of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children conference in Denmark. We are excited to continue our STEM series with a snippet of her talk and some thoughts on getting girls active in STEM early and keeping them interested long-term.

If you have ideas and strategies for girl powered STEM please share them in the comments!

s.t.e.m. ICON

Girl Power STEM: Engaging Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math 

I just returned from Denmark, the home of LEGO® toys, where I attended an international educators’ conference and spoke about the importance of engaging girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in early childhood. Many of the ideas I presented are also included in my new Redleaf Press book, Creating a Beautiful Mess: Ten Essential Play Experiences for a Joyous Childhood. In fact, the first chapter of the book is devoted to block and construction play, an essential experience for the early development of STEM skills and knowledge.

In many early childhood classrooms the block area is perceived to be the domain of boys only. Girls often need extra encouragement from teachers and parents to engage in block play. The experience of young girls in the block corner is similar to what many female students experience in STEM classrooms. Unfortunately, many girls and young women with an early interest or ability in science, technology, engineering and math do not continue studying these subjects at advanced levels. According to the American Association of University Women: “At almost every step of the STEM education ladder, we see girls walk away. By seventh grade, most girls have lost interest in these fields, and few high school girls plan to pursue STEM in college.” (AAUW, Spring 2010)

Block play

Promoting block play for girls can be a great start for creating future interest in STEM fields. Photo: Ann Gadzikowski

If we’re going to reach girls before they turn away from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) it’s clear we need to start young — in early childhood and the primary grades. Girls need support and encouragement to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence that will lead to success in STEM classrooms and careers. This was my primary message last week in Denmark. The conference I attended was the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children and my session was titled “Girl Power STEM: Engaging Bright Female Students in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math in Early Childhood Classrooms.”

One strategy I suggest is using open-ended construction toys to challenge and inspire girls to experiment and innovate. Parents and teachers must take an active role in encouraging girls to build with toys that develop children’s understanding of engineering, geometry, physics and math. In addition to wooden unit blocks, one of the most versatile and open-ended construction toys, girls can be encouraged to build with toys like Magnatiles or Straws & Connectors, as well as household objects like cardboard boxes and plastic bins. (In fact, the excitement and satisfaction of building your own contraption is expressed in my new picture book, to be published by Redleaf Press in 2016. The working title is “Mimi at the Wheel” and the book tells the story of one little girl and her intense curiosity about how a steering wheel works.)

One of the most popular construction toys today are LEGOs, a toy invented in Denmark. Before traveling to Denmark to talk about girls and STEM, I looked into the history of LEGO toys. I learned that the original vision for this Danish toy company included a commitment to “quality in every detail,” “unlimited play potential,” and play opportunities “for girls and for boys.” There was a time in the 1970’s and 1980’s when girls and boys were featured equally in LEGO marketing, back in the days when LEGO bricks came in bright primary colors. But in the 1990’s LEGO began manufacturing toys sets based on mass media franchises, such as Star Wars and Bionicle, that were more appealing to boys than girls. According to National Public Radio, by 2011, 90% of LEGO consumers were boys.

In recent years LEGO has made an effort to draw more girls into LEGO play. In 2012 LEGO launched a product line called “LEGO Friends.” This toy line features a posse of girl dolls in pastel ruffled skirts. The play sets include a hair salon, a shopping mall, a beach house and a juice bar. The LEGO Friends toys have been widely criticized in the media for perpetuating gender stereotypes but they have sold well.

Regardless of the criticisms of LEGO Friends, I still believe that LEGO bricks offer terrific opportunities for children to develop engineering and geometry skills. I hope that LEGO Friends serves as a gateway toy that draws girls to try other kinds of LEGOs and other kinds of construction toys. I believe teachers and parents should provide girls with a variety of opportunities with a wide range of construction toys. Overall, I was encouraged by my experience discussing girls and STEM at the WCGTC conference in Denmark because I met educators from all over the world who are interested in developing more opportunities for girls to explore and achieve in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.


How to make back-to-school anxiety free for children

August 12, 2015

Parent with childIt doesn’t seem like it should be that time of year again, but it is nearly back-to-school time. It is time for children to change classrooms, go to school for the first time, or graduate up to the next room at childcare. For older children this may be old hat and they can’t wait to get back to their friends and favorite subjects or activities.

For younger children, heading to group care or kindergarten for the first time, it can be a scary experience. They are letting go of what is familiar to them and going into something that is full of uncertainty and change.

Every child’s temperament and ability to adjust is different, but there are some common issues care providers, teachers, and parents see this time of year.

Separation Anxiety

Children get into a routine and that is their whole world, so when that world changes drastically – as it does when moving to a new classroom or away from the care provider they’ve known – it can cause them to become anxious about other things changing.

There are several things you can do to help ease the transition and their anxiety. First, be patient and offer support and guidance. The best way to do this is by working with parents and current caregivers prior to the start of the school year to help plan smoother transitions. A few ideas:

  • A few weeks before school plan a classroom visit with parents and children
  • Provide parents information that they can share with children on what to expect in their new classroom or environment
  • Send a letter of introduction to the children who will be joining you for the first time. Make it fun and colorful.
  • Let children know they may experience fear and sadness with the change and that it is okay to feel that way.

Recommended book: Mama’s Gloves

Mama's Gloves

Making new friends

Children enjoy playing with each other, but it can be scary to make new friends. Many children worry that they won’t be able to make friends in their new classroom. Talking to children about this fear is a great place to start. Provide parents with a list of children’s books about making friends and have them talk to their child about how they will have new people to play with.

Once the class list is finalized, consider organizing a picnic or “play date” on the school playground so children can meet each other with their parents there and in a setting they may feel less anxiety in.

Recommended books: Bree Finds a Friend; Rita and the Firefighters

Bree Finds A Freind

Rita and the Firefighters


Group care settings and kindergarten may be more structured than children are use to. They will feel less anxious if they hear what is and is not expected of them in this new setting. For example, they are expected to sit in a circle and listen to stories, but they are not expected to find their own way to the lunchroom.

Prior to the first day of school send parents a note about the schedule for the first day of class. They can share it with their child and talk to them about the fun things they will do and learn. Ask children what they think their day will be like once they are in their new classroom. This allows them to share their feelings and for you to ease some of their anxiety and get them excited about the things they will do.

Recommended books: All in One Day; When You Just Have to Roar!When You Just Have to Roar!      All in One Day

A few other resources that you will enjoy: Is Everybody Ready for Kindergarten?, Getting Ready for Kindergarten (a great pamphlet to give to parents to help them prepare at home), and I’m Going to Kindergarten! 

Good luck with the new school year!

3 fun ways to get moving with children

August 5, 2015

Children love to moveChildren love to move. Yet, somewhere between childhood and adulthood that desire seems to dwindle for most people. There are so many other things vying for our attention and they keep stealing the valuable exercise time of younger and younger people.

That is why it is important to instill the love of movement in children early and re-inject it often. Exercise with your Child Week (August 2-8, 2015) is the perfect time to jumpstart your efforts.

The benefits of movement go beyond obesity prevention. For children, exercise is an opportunity to develop and practice new motor skills. The sense of accomplishment that comes with being active can help boost confidence. If done with a group, exercise and team activities can help children develop socially and emotionally. You also have cognitive and creative development with exercise, and all of this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of movement.

So whether you have one child or a whole group, here are a few fun activities that can be adapted to children of different ages and abilities.

Simon Says


Ducks, Cows, Cats and Dogs

Healthy life by example

Healthy habits are best taught by example

Give children the opportunity to try new physical activities and invite them to try things you enjoy doing. If they see adults in their life being active they will see it as a lifelong commitment and continue to reap the benefits for years to come.

Remember to keep it appropriate for your child’s age and ability. And most importantly, HAVE FUN!

Source: Early Elementary Children Moving & Learning: A Physical Education Curriculum by Rae Pica

Check out Toddlers Moving & Learning, Preschoolers & Kindergartners Moving & Learning, and Moving & Learning with Your Child for even more fun activities.

Is friendship a gift to the children of the world?

July 29, 2015

FriendshipFriendship is a valuable part of human life. The bonds we choose to form with others are a precious connection that can bring us happiness, teach us life lessons, and give us comfort when life challenges us. Some of the most important friendships come in childhood as we learn about ourselves and the world around us.

Since 1998, the world has celebrated this noble human bond with the UN International Day of Friendship. After recognizing the impact that violence against one another has on the human race, especially children, the United Nations set out to promote a Culture of Peace. Knowing that attitudes and violence can often begin in childhood, the program seeks to instill values of peace and non-violence in children through education. “If children learn to live together in peace and harmony that will contribute to the strengthening of international peace and cooperation”(

So how do you begin to teach children about friendship?

Friendship is something children are naturally interested in – it is fun and they enjoy communicating with each other. Since you have a captive audience, teach them a few basic rules about friendship:

  • Friends are kind to each other
  • Friends share their toys. Teach them turn taking, trading, and sharing. Use the magic phrase, “You can have it when I’m done.”
  • Friends share their friends. Remind them they can have many friends and that as they share friends, they make more friends.
  • It’s okay if someone doesn’t want to play.

A few activities to use with children to promote friendship and positive relationships . . .

Best Smile activity

Fishing for Friends

The Kindness Curriculum is a great resource for promoting self-confidence, acceptance, and friendship in children. If we can plant the seed of kindness now, we can grow a culture of peace for the future.

What activities or resources do you use to teach children about kindness and peace? We would love for you to share them in the comments section so others can use them too!

How to work with parents of gifted children #NPGC15

July 22, 2015

This week is National Parenting Gifted Children Week sponsored by SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted). Families of gifted children often deal with special needs related to social and emotional development. So how do you, the educator, help families celebrate the joys and challenges of raising a bright young mind?

Working with gifted children


Find the right time and place to listen to parents’ concerns and questions. Don’t jump in right away with suggestions and resources. Try to get to the heart of what parents most fear and most hope for their children. Keep in mind that many parents of exceptionally bright children were once exceptionally bright children themselves. Their parenting may be influenced by their own positive and negative experiences as children.

Ask what they need

Don’t assume that parents are looking for something specific, such as a referral for screening and evaluation services. Ask parents what they need and how you can help. Then listen to their answers.

Help parents recognize their child’s cues

Sometimes when parents are struggling to understand or communicate with their child, they just need a gentle reminder to slow down and watch or listen, in order to recognize their child’s cues and needs. Model this for parents in the ways you interact with children in the classroom and in the ways you interact with their child when the family is together. Informal family events like picnics and potluck dinners are great times to have these kinds of interactions.

Offer reassurance and affirmation

Parents of exceptionally bright children are usually looking for two seemingly contradictory things: they want reassurance that their child is perfectly normal, and they want recognition that their child is special. You can certainly give them both of these things. Children who are exceptionally bright are perfectly “normal” children. They need their parents’ love and acceptance, the friendship and companionship of other children, and the guidance and support of their teachers and other adults in their lives. They need all of these things just as deeply as any other child. They are also special. They have the gift of being able to see and understand the world in a way that is different from that of many other children. Your job is to help parents keep these two realities in harmonious balance as you work with them to lay a foundation for a lifetime of joyous learning.

The above excerpt is from Challenging Exceptionally Bright Children in Early Childhood Classrooms by Ann Gadzikowski. The book also includes a wealth of information on assessing and identifying gifted children, adapting curriculum to meet their needs, classroom strategies for several topics children often excel at, and resources for further assistance.

Challenging exceptionally bright children


How to get started with Parent Engagement

July 15, 2015

From the Washington Post to Education Week, the topic of parent engagement has been making headlines. Some states are now including parent engagement as a component of evaluation for both teachers and curriculums. Grants specifically for engagement programs are increasing, but with more specific strategy requirements.

As Patricia A. Spradley, one of Education Week’s 2015 Leaders to Learn From, says, “’strategic and intentional programs,’ developed using student data and research, now are having a much greater impact on student learning”(Reid, 2015). So how do you, the educator, begin to foster relationships with families to meet the increased desire for engagement?

Parent with child

Take your time

Relationships don’t develop after the first drop off, especially not lasting ones. Take your time and be committed to the process. Be available, but in a way that works for both you and the parents. Quick conversations, emails, and other short forms of communication can go a long way in developing trusting relationships. Just be yourself and only share within your personal boundaries.

Be proactive with information

Being forthcoming with information helps build trust and if parents know they can help children understand experiences and lessons. If you have information to share that is of a sensitive nature keep a few things in mind:

  • Begin with assurances that everything is okay.
  • If you don’t know how a parent will react, don’t bring it up in front of the child.
  • Talk to the parent out of earshot of other parents.
  • Make arrangements for a follow-up conversation if needed

Try to see it from the parent’s perspective

Parents want to know information that pertains to their child and what they can do as parents. Don’t use jargon and give general information about the class or age group. Ask yourself these questions to help see it from the parent’s perspective:

  • How does this issue directly affect the parent?
  • What do you want the parent to do?
  • Are you truly listening to the parent’s point of view?

Use active listening and respectful communication to avoid conflict.

Regardless of whether parent engagement is required by your program, it is important because educators and parents have a lot to offer each other and working together creates the best environment for children to learn in.

For more tips, tools, and scenarios to help improve your parent engagement skills check out Parent-Friendly Early Learning and watch for the updated version, Parent Engagement in Early Learning: Strategies for Working with Families, coming in February for even more information on working with modern families and technology for improved parent engagement.

Summer science: Ice Cream in a bag

July 1, 2015

Who doesn’t love a science lesson that you get to eat afterwards? So why not use this National Creative Ice Cream Flavor Day for a fun science experiment – Ice Cream in a Bag.

Ice Cream in a bag

Things to discuss: Changing phases (liquid to solid, solid to liquid); temperature (freezing and melting points); crazy flavor ideas!

ice cream in a bag recipe

Summer, science, and ice cream – sounds like a great day to us.

Source: This recipe comes from Cooking is Cool: Heat-Free Recipes for Kids to Cook by Marianne E. Dambra

Essential play experiences for a joyful childhood

June 24, 2015

Many of us remember our childhoods with a sense of nostalgic joy. We remember our toys, playing in the grass, being outdoors. If that is the case, you probably also worry about today’s children.

Are they playing enough? Are they on electronics too much?

Electronic playmates

What you have to remember is that play is play, even when it looks different, and by definition is “an activity that is done purely for pleasure”. Still worried about whether children are getting the play that is important for their development?

Here are five play experiences that can be shared with children for a balanced and joyous childhood . . . and perhaps a little fun on the adult’s part.

Building blocks

  1. Building with blocks

Children love to create and build. While they are building towers they are also developing dexterity and balance, and learning science, design, and physics lessons. If you build with them they learn to work together, communicate, and sometimes even negotiate.

And who doesn’t enjoy knocking the tower down at the end.

  1. Pretending and make-believe Make believe

As a practical use, it is a dress rehearsal for real-life. Pretending to be mommy or daddy or another adult in their life. In its more fanciful form, it is storytelling and pretending to be imaginary creatures such as mermaids or dinosaurs. Regardless of what they are pretending to be it is important for children’s mental health and especially important during stressful times.

  1. Running around like crazy

Physical movement and exercise is important to everyone’s well-being and allowing children to experience that early is important to life long health. Give children the space to run, skip, dance, and just be crazy.

We could all benefit from a little time to let loose and move.

  1. Cuddling something soft and small

Cuddle time

Many people probably remember their special stuffed animal and the unique name they had for it. Or perhaps it is a blanket, t-shirt, or other soft item? Allowing children to latch on to something for a time is one of the first ways children learn to connect with something and helps them practice being kind, helpful, and compassionate.

  1. Laughing, joking, and other general sillinesssilliness

Who doesn’t enjoy hearing a baby’s first laugh or the toddler belly laugh that is filled with pure joy? Humor teaches us to deal with surprises and incongruity. As children age their developing language and cognitive abilities allow for more advanced humor such as word puns. Regardless of age, humor helps us connect and makes it easier to make friends.

These are just half of the essential play experiences you can offer to the children you know. Find out more about these and the other five essential play experiences in Ann Gadzikowski’s newest book, Creating a Beautiful Mess: Ten Essential Play Experiences.

And we would love to hear about your favorite play experiences from your own childhood or those you like to experience with the children in your life today.

Happy Eat Your Veggies Day!

June 17, 2015

It’s national eat your veggies day! Really everyday is a day to eat your veggies, but sometimes that gets forgotten. So in honor of this special day here are a few ideas for working veggies into kid’s everyday activities to create an environment that reflects healthy practices.

  • Include fruits and vegetables of multiethnic selections in your dramatic play area. Think sushi rolls, steamed dumplings, and tortillas . . . these are easy to find now in most children’s toy sections. Avoid cakes and ice cream.
  • Instead of make believe visits to the ice cream parlor or candy store, create props and activities focused on visits to the farmers’ market and the doctor’s office. Or even better, actually go there.
  • Count fruits and vegetables for math lessons and leave the cookies and candies off the table. Berries, carrot coins, and pepper sticks are just a few ideas.
  • Sing songs about healthy practices instead of songs about bubblegum and sugary treats. You might have to do a little internet searching for these songs, but there are some fun ones out there.
  • Pick books for story time that convey positive nutrition and health messages.

Kids really do learn from what they experience and if they have continued exposure to healthy examples it simply becomes a part of who they are.

Breakfast Burritos

Delicious Bell Pepper Breakfast Burritos (The Early Sprouts Cookbook, 2012)

And, of course, we couldn’t leave you without a tasty veggie dish on eat your veggie day J

Recipe breakfast burritos

The Early Sprouts Cookbook, 2012; Redleaf Press

Check out The Early Sprouts Cookbook for more ideas on helping children learn healthy habits for life and recipes that kids love.

The Early Sprouts Cookbook

The Comfort of Little Things: Where the magic awaits

June 10, 2015

We all have things in our pasts, and sometimes in our present, that we allow to hold us back and stall our lives. What if we could change that? What if we could help others not fall into the same trap? Holly Ellisa Bruno did just that, and she documented that journey for others to be inspired by and learn from. This month we are proud to release Holly’s latest book, The Comfort of Little Things: An Educator’s Guide to Second Chances. 

Give yourself a little break and enjoy this excerpt from The Comfort of Little Things . . . 

Where the Magic Awaits: The Worst Becomes the Absolute Best 

Surrendering to the unknown can be hard, if not impossible, for me. Oh sure, I’m a free spirit. I break into song. I get a groove on when Motown pops into my head in the middle of a keynote to five hundred people. I travel the world. I meet new people to love every day.

It’s a good life. And it’s a complex life. We all have pain. We all have sorrow. You have your challenges. I have mine: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). My nervous system craves safety and stability. My early years were a Molotov cocktail of beatings, neglect, household mental illness, and blame: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself” is one phrase I heard often that still echoes in my head sometimes.

I am not the only one with this history. Abuse and neglect are endured by more children than anyone wants to imagine. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2010), 29.1 percent of adults grew up with a substance-abusing household member; 25.9 percent were verbally abused (1611). Even one abused child is one too many.

I have taken this early unhappiness and reconstructed my life into a blessing, thanks in large part to the kindness of so many loving fellow travelers. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, a principal from Christchurch, New Zealand, reminded me as he described the deafening earthquake that flattened his school and annihilated all records and resources. With the help of his teachers, that man picked up the pieces and created a new school that is even more effective.

I trust my life is far richer and my spirit is more resilient than they ever would have been if I had enjoyed an easy beginning. Little things delight me. I have a deep capacity for joy that balances my early experiences with sadness. Today I am grateful for all of it.

I believe I am meant to be an explorer every day of my life. Children surrounding me learn rapaciously. I learn with a similar hunger. In fact, each time I let go of thinking I have the answer, I end up loving my job as an explorer. My brain creates new pathways, and my heart opens just that much more.

So, I made my resolution to be open to a year of second chances, even if it meant I had to let go of my life preservers. Sink or swim? Okay, I would swim, even in cold, choppy waters. Robert Frost reminds me in his poem “A Servant to Servants” that “the best way out is always through.” Don’t get me wrong, I love my life. But I know there’s more to it. I committed this year to honoring my resolution.

So began my treasure hunt for second chances.

Are you ready to make a change in your own life? Or lead the children in your care to their own second chances? We would love to hear your stories about second chances and the adventures that you’ve had as you create a magical life for yourself and others.

The Comfort of Little Things

Get your own copy of The Comfort of Little Things and start your own journey to the life you were meant to lead. Also check out Holly’s other books including Learning From the Bumps in the Road: Insights From Early Childhood Leaders.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 801 other followers