Family Style Dining with Children

Family style dining in a child care setting enriches curriculum as no other activity can. Pouring, passing, serving, and sharing food not only promote language and fine motor development, but also enhance a child’s self-concept by providing opportunities to make decisions and to take responsibility.

Positive social interaction with peers and adults develops naturally around mealtime when children are encouraged to fully participate in the process. There’s nothing more exciting for children than to be able to say “I did it all by myself!”

Something as simple as pouring a glass of milk can be deeply satisfying for young children. A warm, easy, give-and-take conversation style should be initiated by caregivers following children’s leads. Interaction should be equal and involve a lot of descriptive statements. This type of relaxed dialogue goes a long way toward allowing self-help and social skills to grow.

However, the right equipment is really important! Young diners should have appropriately sized tables and chairs so that children can sit comfortably with their feet on the floor, yet have room to move freely. It is also important that children eating together be at the same eye level with each other. Small groups of 5-7 are conducive to conversation and interaction.


Download our FREE STAFF TRAINING AID for Family Style Dining



August 15, 2012


Alice laughed “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

In this very telling conversation, the old Queen, who believes in the possibility of the impossible, is definitely more child-like in her thinking than young Alice.

To young children, all things are matters of possibility. A wooden block becomes a telephone or a truck. A bucket can be a hat or a suitcase. A play scarf turns into a magic cape or a flying carpet.

With appropriate tools of discovery and a safe and nurturing environment, children learn naturally through exploring freely and playing. Through acting out and pretending, children are able to bring together the things that they are learning and feeling about their world and themselves.

The impossible becomes the possible as children grow in confidence and understanding through play.

The Adult Role in Free Play

September 8, 2011

Once again, I’m inspired to post an article from the Environments’ archives. This excerpt, from the original article “You are the Infant/Toddler Environment,” explores the role of the adult in free play. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

“Me do it!” is a common call of toddlers. They are expressing their increasing desire for independence as well as an interest in doing more self-directed exploration. At this stage of development, it is very important for children to make choices about not only what they are playing with, but also how they are playing with it. Essential thinking skills are used as children construct their own learning through open-ended experimentation.

Toddlers move from one thing to another very quickly, so be sure to have a full variety of materials available for child choice. A one-year-old may pick something up, do something with it, then put it down – only to return again to repeat the process. This self- imposed repetition is a core practice toddlers use to learn about the nature of things in their world.

Adult-Child Interactions
Some of children’s most important understandings are learned on somebody’s lap! While we all know that children learn through their free exploratory play, we also know that the process of interacting with an adult is essential to brain development. The closeness of sharing a manipulative or a puzzle is fundamental to stimulating and developing the pathways of the brain that produce cognitive and social-linguistic knowledge. By demonstrating enthusiasm for a child’s exploration and thinking, and by asking just the right question or following a child’s lead, adults empower a child’s
natural learning. Through your use of language to illustrate the collective activity, children gain receptive (and some expressive!) vocabulary words that describe actions and things.

Open-Ended Questions
What do you say when you introduce a new toy to a child? Ask a divergent (open-ended) question. These are questions that do not have a right or wrong answer and which invite children to explore in their own way and with their own timing. An open-ended question sets the stage for both you and the child to make discoveries. The child will discover what the toy does and what she can do with it, and you find out by observation and further questioning about the child’s developmental level.
      Some Questions to Ask
• What can you do with this toy?
• What can you do to make this toy work?
• Can you try it another way?
• Can you do it faster?
• Can you make it move (go)?
• Can you put something inside?

Open-ended questions should be used with respect for children – to engage them as partners in exploration and discussion. The purpose of the questions is to promote critical thinking – not to quiz children.

“I think this article, one of Environments’ Teacher Training aids, is an excellent guide for supporting children at play in the early childhood learning environment.  Enjoy!”

How does one follow the lead of the child?
By respecting that young children need to explore, discover, and construct their own learning and understanding, and by allowing them opportunities to do so.

Although “following the lead of the child” focuses on child-initiated learning, this approach does not rely on chance. Adults must still “set the stage” with stimulating environments enriched with materials that are both developmentally and individually appropriate. Adults need to serve as guides, facilitators, and scaffolds. Just remember that it is very important that many activities should follow the lead of the child rather than the lead of the adult. In other words, many of the activities that children engage in should be child-initiated rather than teacher-directed.

It’s about children’s choices: Creating a physical learning environment that is appropriate to the needs and abilities of young children enables them to…
• follow through on their own interests,
• try out their ideas, and
• seek answers to their questions.

Child-sized furnishings, storage and display arranged in developmentally appropriate learning/play centers, and safe, authentic educational materials give children the means to make selections and to follow their interests independently.

It’s about adults’ observations: Tuning in to the choices children make, listening to their comments, and watching the way they interact with their world give adults clues about what catches the children’s interests. Planning activities around topics that children find intriguing increases their engagement and strengthens the learning that takes place.

It’s about everyone’s involvement: Interacting with children, being an active participant in their learning, and taking part in their play help the adult be an
informed decision maker. It is much easier to get a sense of what is really happening when the adult is engaged with the children and sharing their experiences instead
of acting as an on-looker or an instructor.

It’s about conversation: In language and conversation, adults can also follow the lead of the child. Early infant/toddler vocalization elicits adult response in a “game
of language” which builds interconnections between spoken and receptive language. This two-way communication helps children understand the meaning and usefulness
of words and consequently builds early literacy skills. It also mirrors a positive reaction to children’s attempts to communicate and establishes secure and pleasant relationships in their lives. Children feel listened to, and they gain a foundation of confidence which supports success in further communication. They feel more free to express
opinions and ask questions. And they are more likely to listen to others.

Important guidelines to remember
• When selecting topics and themes for integrated learning, choose those that match the children’s interests.
• Ask the children what they would like to find out about the topic, and use this information to tailor a theme to their interests.
• Provide a choice of materials and the freedom to adapt activities to allow children mastery over their own learning.
• Be prepared to stop or to follow a new path as children’s interest in an activity or topic changes.
• Make certain that the focus is always on children’s involvement and their learning – not on the activity itself.
• Allow for individual variations among children in their attention spans and levels of curiosity.
• Ask open-ended questions that encourage children to think and to respond with their own creative answers.
• Provide sufficient time for “free play” to give children opportunities to choose and explore activities of particular significance to them.
• When you allow them to take the lead…
…children learn to value their own interests.
…children learn to make informed choices.
…children learn to trust their instincts.
…children learn respect for themselves!


August 2, 2011

We love the Whoosh Tube. (Imagine the sound of rushing air when you read that!) While simple in design and implementation, it’s a great early childhood science manipulative. Take a look at our new learning video and let us know what you think!

Whoosh Tube Video


Of Mud and Media

July 20, 2011

The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”  —Richard Louv, author “The Nature Principle”

Over the past month as we’ve worked on developing learning videos for our product line – which has taken all my attention, hence the gap in blogging – several articles have crossed my desktop. Two in particular have stayed with me, forming a connection that feels important.  The first was the draft of the NAEYC and Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media draft statement on Technology in Early Childhood Programs.  The second was a report on International Mud Day.  I read both documents as well as many of the comments both inspired. While opinions range widely on the issue of technology in the early childhood classroom, those who commented on or participated in Mud Day seemed positively bucolic in contrast.

I understand. I grew up in the days of mud pies and digging holes to China in the backyard. I often came home from playing or kindergarten smeared with dirt and tempura paints and smelling like I’d had big fun. I built dams out of sticks at the edge of the puddle and built towers from Legos and Tinker Toys.  We made paste from flour, salt and water and formed people with movable arms and legs from pipe cleaners. That’s how it was. Basic. Natural. Froebel would have been proud. Nobody worried about too much screen time because there were only 3 channels on the black and white TV (four if you count UHF) and the only daytime programming was the Dinah Shore Show and The Edge of Night. Personal computers hadn’t been invented yet. And, no, I did not walk to school uphill, barefoot, in the snow, both ways.

Things have changed since the earliest days of Kindergarten, and for many people the classic early childhood practices seem outdated. Technology is ubiquitous, from in-home game systems to iPads to Smart Boards that take up half of the classroom wall. Parents are as apt to hand their toddler their smart phone to distract them as to hand them a rattle. And yet, studies and experience show that hands-on, experiential play is still the basis of a good early childhood education program. I would venture to say that it is still the basis of a good early childhood. Period.

So, where does mud meet media? It is this question that lies at the heart of the discussion. The present and future seem to require a new paradigm. Our little ones will grow up in a world where an inability to navigate developing technology will leave them far behind. Even I, classic naturalist that I am, design art on a Mac computer using Adobe software and am not sure how well I could function without my Blackberry. But I would not be the woman I am today without the early experiences. It is because I dug with a spoon in my backyard and can remember the feel of tempura paint squishing through my fingers that I can approach my computer screen with a curious and open mind.

There seem to be 2 very important points to consider – developmental appropriateness (to an 8 -month old an iPod is a teether, and to a 2-year old it might be a hammer) and an understanding that appropriate use of technology “does not replace activities that are important for children’s development like creative play, real life exploration, physical activity, conversation, and social interactions.”

I agree with Richard Louv. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need. And blocks. And digging tools. And puzzles with chunky pieces.  And pull toys.  And bird feeders and banners that flap in the breeze. Things we can hold, stack, taste, feel ­­– things that will continue to work even when the batteries are dead.

 “In just-spring when the world is mud-luscious…and puddle-wonderful…”  e.e.cummings

Every Block Has a Story

June 21, 2011

Our first product video is finished and I’m excited about it. Since it’s founding over 40 years ago, Environments has been dedicated to traditional learning through the use of manipulatives and a belief that children learn through natural interaction with their environment. Creating an environment that is beautiful, nurturing, safe and appropriate has been our focus since day 1. To that end we have a catalog full of items that are well-made, standards-based and inviting to use. From our unit blocks to our classroom equipment, each item has a story and a specific purpose in a child’s creative play.

Our first product video shares the story of our classic playhouse and play furniture. The materials are designed to be open-ended and to inspire “play without boundaries” for pre-toddlers and up. There are no batteries. No plugs. No room dividers. Instead the playhouse can be used with two-sided wall blocks and wooden furniture that a child can place anywhere he wants to determine his own living spaces. There are wooden block people that are easy to hold and handle. The people are representative of different ages, cultures and abilities and little people can move them about to tell the stories that have meaning to them.  Even better, all of the pieces are designed to be compatible with unit blocks to extend play/learning opportunities.

Unit blocks are still the core of the early childhood education experience. From renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineers, the early experience with blocks provide a springboard for continued exploration and discovery.  It’s great to carry on and add to that tradition. Take a look at the video and let me know what you think.

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