Why Walk When You Can Klaw?

Head of Early Childhood Kim Barnes writes about how conversations turn into learning opportunities all around the Greenhill campus.

A Conversation before School on Thursday, May 9, 2013

“I know I can walk up backward, but I have never tried to walk down backward,” said a teacher. “Is it scary?”

“No,” replied the four-year-old, “it’s the same. It’s not scary.”

“I think it is because my body feels like it is going to fall and my head wants to turn and look.”

“Just try it!” was the reply, “You can do it. Trust me.” (He must have heard that somewhere.)

“You know, when Anansi* goes walking, walking, walking, what would it be when he goes walking backwards?”

“You just say it backwards. Sound it out,” says the child.

“Sound what out?”

“Sound out walk backwards.”

“What would that be?”

“You know! /k/!!”

“Then what?”

Long pause – “/l/”


With a roll of eyes, “/w/!”

“Wait, there’s no vowel. We have to have a vowel in every word.”

A second grader listening to the conversation and also walking down the berm backward joins in, “Do you mean the a in walk?”

The four-year-old looks at the adult with a puzzled look and without saying a word questions with his eyes.

“I don’t know. Is that the vowel in walk?” said the teacher.

The second grader assured that was correct and she began to spell walk backwards – k, l, a, w.

“Okay, now sound it out like he said.”

(Sidebar – When a second grader is walking down a hill backward and trying to sound out a word, you can literally see the cogs turning and working in tandem to figure the word out.)

“/k/ /l/ /a/ /w/ – claw. Walk backwards is claw. Klaw!”

As she walks up the hill backward, the second grader begins to chant and add hand motions, “I am klawing, klawing, klawing up the green hill.” The pre-kindergartner runs to join her. Up and down they go, backward all the way.

Conversation like this happens all over the Greenhill campus, all day long – our campus is one large classroom and each walk is a walk of wonder and questioning. Each recess is a time of imagination and pondering and each step may unearth a treasure or solidify a lesson. Hmmm, I wonder if they are ready for gniklaw.

*Anansi is a trickster spider in African folklore that the students learn about during pre-k.

Giving Children an Optimal Environment for Learning

Head of Lower School Kim Barnes writes about how Greenhill’s Lower School provides students an optimal environment for their individual learning needs.

During the early years of formal education, it is important for children to begin to understand how they learn best. Children need to understand if they need areas of quiet, or if they can work through background noise; if they need fewer distractions, or if others can be moving around them as they work; if they need to stand while working, or if lying on the floor is a better support method, etc. Over the past several weeks as I have moved in and out of classrooms, the examples of support for each child and his or her individual learning style has been staggering.

A teacher is concerned with a child’s reading progress. Something is not quite right as this child has everything in place to be reading fluently. The teacher has heard about varying background colors and the way this may help a child see words on a page more clearly. She borrows a set of reading overlays and works with the child to figure out if one color is more helpful than another. There is one color that appeals to the child, and when combined with previously established skills, the student’s reading becomes stronger. An additional benefit to the child is exposure to adult problem-solving skills – identifying the problem and continuing to look for alternative solutions.

Another teacher might be concerned about a child’s core muscle development. Lower School faculty understands this need of development. Walk into one classroom and you will see large balls replacing some chairs; these balls allow children to have the movement required for concentration and focus. No one ever falls over or rolls around as a distraction since this is what that child’s physical body required. Other students have knobby seat cushions that provide stimuli and deep muscle tension required by some individuals and can frankly be the envy of a few others. Sometimes deep muscle pressure is needed through the upper body. Swaddling through tight vests or jackets provides some children with the ability to feel more grounded. Minor weights placed in jackets or vests or shirts provide the pull on the deep muscles of the upper torso. Teachers also allow (encourage) children to work on the floor knowing core muscles are developed through these movements. Our faculty ensures these options are available and in turn, children know about them.

What about focus and distractibility? Children independently set up barriers with portable individual carrels; interestingly it varied from class to class as to which students chose to use these. Earphones are available in many classes; no music is needed, just a better way for some children to block out their distracters.

Educators facilitate options for children and incorporate alternatives into the learning day. Sometimes the need is provided through physical paraphernalia and outlets. We know the brain and the physical body are intertwined in ways educators have long been aware and in ways we are just now recognizing through continuing research. Examples abound pre-k through 4th grade and it is difficult to limit these to just a few to share. Thinking about how an individual thinks and learns begins early in the Lower School.

Made for Children by Children

Head of Early Childhood Kim Barnes write about a community service project pairing third graders, kindergarteners, and pre-kindergarteners to make blankets together.

“They are so cute” were the words from the third grade student as he worked with a group of four pre-kindergartners and three other third graders. They, like the other 76 third graders, 24 pre-kindergarteners and 64 kindergarteners, had gathered together to do important work and this particular third grader seemed to be delighted to work with younger students.

Their work was to make fleece blankets to give to the children at The Vogel Alcove. The third graders had been prepped with the directions, but even after several reassurances, the third graders still worried the younger students were going to cut their fingers as they cut the fleece edges into strands. Patience was, indeed, the term for the activity.

The requirements of this activity were fully integrated. Each group worked on verbal cooperation to come to agreement on a one-strand or two-strand knot. They used a standard measure square guideline of three-inches for the length of each cut and a non-standard unit of measure of a third grader’s finger for the width of each strand.

The physical aspect of this activity required the third graders to learn and teach how to tie the chosen knot. This was not easy for many and took several practice attempts before some had mastered the skill.  Of course, the scissors weren’t always the sharpest; hence, problem solving and sharing ensued as both the third graders and pre-k’ers and kindergartners came up with a system to use the scissors, which had proved most successful to cut the fabric. There were a few tears shed, but perseverance won out at the end of each of these collaborations.

The children began with the same size and the same prepped piece of fabric. When finished, like the students who were creating these bits of warmth, the pieces were no longer the same.  Some of the knots were a little tight and the strands, a bit uneven. And on a couple of blankets, a bit of length had been removed; there were also differences within each blanket as each pair of third grader and preschooler worked on their side. The final product, however, was the same in that each blanket was endearing and could be imagined wrapped around a tiny body.

Children were dedicated to their work of purpose to fruition. As the third graders returned to class, the words “they are so cute” were heard once again, but this time, the reference had a bit of pride as they paraded past their work.

blanket3  blanket1


From the Notebook of a Grateful Teacher, November 26 – December 10, 2012

Kim Barnes, Head of Early Childhood, reflects on her everyday experiences in Greenhill’s Early Childhood and Lower School divisions.

– Mr. Simpson, Head of Lower School, gave a fourth-grader new sand buckets, shovels, and sifters for the playground. The child’s excitement was contagious as he and two other fourth-graders (one of whom sand play would have been my last guess for his choice of play), a third-grader, a second-grader, and a pre-kindergartner dug and sifted sand during the next thirty minutes of early morning recess.

– Pre-kindergartners and kindergartners were working on the “river.” I asked a pre-k’er what she is going to do about the leaves. “The leaves don’t matter. Water is a liquid and it will move under the leaves. Watch!” The water did, indeed, flow right under the leaves without disturbing anything. “See! That’s what liquids do. They go anywhere.”

– With full hands, waiting on third-graders to make their way into the cafeteria, a third grader stops everyone behind him and motions me to pass through the line. All stop even the students from older grades. Thanks were issued and then back from the original student, “My pleasure, Mrs. Barnes.”

-First grader is headed to class. She stops to tell me, “My parents forgot my backpack. No, I mean I forgot my backpack.” She wants to know what accountability is after I tell her I am proud of her for the accountability for her action of leaving her backpack.

– This has been a week of flexibility and risktaking for several of the adults in the building. After exhausting the list of substitutes, second grade was headed out on a field trip, short a few adults. An office coordinator is eager and ready to step in and help chaperone, never a worry to the time she is giving up on her work. Teaching fellows and teachers readjust schedules so 2nd grade, 3rd grade, and 4th grade classes are covered. This generally means giving up a planning time the only break in a day; it also means teachers readjust as the second adult with these young children is now gone. Heard through the grapevine that one of the fellows created a Jeopardy game on the spur of a moment to cover science vocabulary.

– Coming in from the playground, a child is eager to share his destination. “Mrs. Barnes, Mrs. Barnes, I found these coats on the playground. I’m going to all the classes to find out who left them on the playground. They are going to need them.”

– Leaves seem to be the topic of the day. This morning a kindergartner and third grader want to know why the leaves can’t stay on the playground. The kindergartner said she wondered what those men were doing with their leaves last week; “We need them for our play on the playground. We don’t want them to take the leaves. Can you tell them to stop?” A couple of pre-kindergartners echo the same thing later on the pre-k/k playground. “We need all the leaves and acorns.” As I walk out the pre-k/k door, four second-graders are actively gathering leaves and playing in them. The girls roll in the leaves, push the leaves together, swing each other around, laughing and giggling the entire time. I think the leaves need to stay.

Empathy, accountability, exploration, nature-connection, “civic” change, risk-taking – take a moment to listen and watch.

Children’s Play Hasn’t Changed

Head of Early Childhood, Kim Barnes, talks about the importance of big bold play.

I felt a tap on my shoulder early one morning as I was watching a group of children play King of the Hill on the burm on the Lower School playground. A tap on the shoulder and the hair on my arms stood up as I braced myself for a confrontation for a group of parents had been watching the play on the hill for a few days and I had been waiting for one of them to ask, “why are you allowing this play?” I turned to find a parent with a big smile standing just behind me; she simply wanted to comment that “the games children play haven’t changed much, have they?” This parent was correct and my heartbeat slowed down as here was a comrade who realized the importance of what the children were doing.

As my observation continued, the ebb and flow of natural laughter and, to be quite honest, squealing hung in the air. The boys and girls had their hands open, palms to the inside, revolving with one another in imaginary circles, big smiles, and bursts of exuberant, joyful laughter. Occasionally a child fell or slipped down the hill and there was always a hand or two to pull them back up into the melee of circling.

Swat and down went a child! Although the child jumped right up, the fall was a bit hard. He didn’t say anything to the other child and he was ready to return to his play. Another child had witnessed the fall and he made a point to both the boys that the hit was too hard as he demonstrated what motions and actions could take place so everyone would have a good time and would feel safe.

Before school begins each morning, the Lower School children are enjoying opportunities to participate in self- selected, big-body, bold play. The games and activities they feel they are creating (but we know better) are building muscle tone, upper body strength, lower body strength, agility and balance. Affective and intellectual learning is also taking place. Children learn to take turns and the give and take of physical games. These children are learning to “even the playing field” as they learn to judge how to make allowances for another child’s size and age and how to communicate these expectations. They are modeling appropriate play behaviors for one another as these behaviors become innate life skills. These children feel empathy for an “injured” party and learn to care for one another in a nurturing manner. No one is excluded – all are welcome and many come.

A watchful eye is always nearby. The urge to step in is always close to the edge. It takes great confidence in children to not intervene. Yet time and time again these wonderful little beings prove they know what to do and how to interact. If left to the devices of children, play hasn’t changed much over time nor has the craving and need for that big bold play. Sometimes it’s just a matter of trust.

Observations from the World of Preschool

Kim Barnes, Head of Early Childhood writes about her recent observations in pre-k and kindergarten.

Eye Contact
“Hola, buenos días ¿cómo estás?”
Child answers.
“Bien, gracias. ¿Y Usted?”
Maestra greeted each child at the door, expecting eye contact and a hand shake. A surprising comment from Maestra came as a child did not make contact – “What? You do not like me? Is that why you do not look into my eyes?” Startled by the comment, the child looked up to make eye contact and with a smile gave an answer to Maestra.

The kindergartner came running up the sidewalk and grabbed my hand. “You have to come see this.” After a quick trip around the patio and through the muddy grass, the child declared, “Do you see that? It’s a leaf. We planted seeds there and that is the first one to grow. See those we planted those from our classroom. That one is mine. It was four inches tall when I planted it.”

The pre-kindergartners were busy setting out their lunches. One child spilled something and others quickly came to the aid of that child. Another child observed my interest and stated, “It is always important to help someone who is having trouble with something. That’s using your manners.”

The pre-k girls were overjoyed to share their observations of the snails. “This one,” as they explained, “fell and we had to put a band aid on his shell.” “Watch this one. He is going to go across this circus. We just have to keep spraying him. We know he is going to make it.”

The kindergarten teacher moved from table to table and then to the floor, just checking in to see how things were going, to make a comment, to listen to a story. Confidence exuded from each child. The sixteen children were focused on the job he or she and their partner were assigned at that moment in the rotation, which included a variety of small motor tasks, current project needs, and math games. Towards the end of the rotation, a book on disk was added as the teacher shared the book with this group of learners and many, even with just five weeks of kindergarten under their belts, had learned to balance work and attention to the story.

The combined voices of the ninety-two children brought one teacher to tears as she became the recipient of a friendly shoulder hug from a nearby teacher. After the song, the teacher quietly said, “The voices of children move me to tears, their voices are just so beautiful.”

The playground was bustling with cooperation. The children didn’t have to know one another; they just needed to have the same goal in mind, such as water flowing from the water table to the stream, a trip around the bike path, a sand creation, a deep hole that needed to grow deeper, climbing high to the top of the Explorer Dome, a how-to discussion on how to get to the sling swing, or simply standing up and settling one another after sitting in the spinner. Teachers were always watching and moving and keeping an eye on things and listening to the sound of children learning but never interfering as the children went about their business of constructing knowledge and meaning.

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Constructing knowledge and meaning of their world through models, cooperation, collaboration, and trust is key to the lives of these young children, never a dull moment. Join us for a time and recreate a tiny part of your world or just leave with a smile.

Start Your Engines! First Day in Pre-k and K at Greenhill

This week, Kim Barnes, Head of Early Childhood, reflects on the first day of school.

The combustion engine requires many things to get you where you going – oil, spark, fuel, cooling agent. Each engine is slightly different from the next as a weed eater often requires much priming and a lawn mower might just need a swift pull of a cord. The owner of said machine will learn how each runs and what gets each started and how to keep it consistent. There is always a particular mixture and a formula for each.

Last week at Greenhill School there were ninety-two pre-k and kindergarten children revving their engines, ready to go and explore their new world. At 8:20 am on the first day of school all were lined up, waiting to play on their new playground for the first time. As they left the ribbon behind, the race was on and all turned on their fuel at different levels. The spark for some immediately accelerated them to the top of the Explorer Dome in less than 20 seconds. Some needed a bit of priming as teachers coached them where to place a foot or a hand. Others needed to have a bit of oil added to keep them moving forward as they stopped to rest and reflect on what they had already accomplished. After a few minutes of climbing and pulling, a respite at the water table or the river was required for a few to cool down their engines and determine their next path.

Inside the classroom, only enough direction was given by the pit crew, their teachers, to prime each for independent movement. It was time to move and those doing the fueling seemed to know exactly how to inspire those needing an extra push, and give guidance to those already running at top speed. The children used the road map from the teachers to explore, and happily each chose a path and discovered what the chosen road had to offer. The pit crew was constantly observing and checking in on engines to see if refueling at the snack station or new directions were needed.

The pit crew’s time over the summer had definitely paid off to figure out how each engine ran and determine just the right fuel mixture for success. The time at homes, the time listening to parents, the time observing children, the time planning what concept was introduced first, the time scheduling the day – allowed all to have a smooth road through the week as engines were primed, fueled, and ready for a spark. I look forward to seeing how far each of these ninety-two engines will go during the course of the school year.