Reflect on the articles in this week’s Required Resources, “The Nature of Teacher Talk during Small Group Activities” and “Stepping Back to Listen to Jeff: Conversations with a 2-Year-Old” (see attachments). In each, the authors offer guidelines for facilitating affirming communication with children. Re-read the articles and identify three important principles you gleaned to guide you in fostering positive communication between you and the children with whom you work or may work with in the future.
Now, think about the media segment demonstration which features Lisa Kolbeck engaging two very quiet young children in conversation as they play (see attachment). How well does Ms. Kolbeck exemplify these principles in her communication and interaction with the children in the media segment? It may be helpful to replay the media segment with these principles in mind and take note of specific comments that she makes or behavior that she engages in while she converses with the children. What additional kinds of interactions, communications, and sensitivities does she exhibit that help to draw children out and show respect for them as individuals?
Next, consider the article “Communicating with Babies” (see attachment) which discusses ways in which to appropriately communicate with infants. As you know, children of different ages communicate in different ways. Caring adults communicate in ways that relate to the age and interests of the child. Do the three guiding principles you identified earlier in this assignment hold up when working with infants as well? How so? If not, why not?
Finally, think about your own experiences in talking with and listening to young children. What additional insights might you have for facilitating affirming communication from your professional and/or personal perspective? What methods have you used to enhance positive communication with children to help them develop confidence, feelings of self-worth, and positive, respectful relationships with others? How do you know that these methods have been effective?
Julie Rainer Dangei
and Tonia Renee Durden
How many wings does
the bumblebee have?
How does a bumble-
What does this remind
The first question, posed by
a preschool teacher during
a small group activity, asks
children to remember information
or count the number of wings on
an insect. There is only one correct
answer. The other two questions
require more imaginative
Question two asks the children to
explain or demonstrate how a bumble-
bee flies. To answer question three,
Julie Rainer Dangel. PhD, is associate
professor of early childhood at Georgia
State University in Atlanta, where she
coordinates the doctoral program and
teaches courses on critical issues in the
field. She has taught kindergarten and
directed national child care centers,
Tonia Renee Durden, PhD, is an early
childhood education Extension speciaiist
and assistant professor at the University
of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she leads
trainings for early care providers and
coordinates statewide programs for young
children and their famiiies, toniadurden@
children must compare an object to
something else in their experience,
looking for similarities. They have to
think beyond the current activity.
What do you think is the teacher’s
purpose in asking these questions?
Which ones might the preschoolers
find most cognitively challenging?
Which of the questions encourage
conversation? Does it matter who
initiates the question or controls the
This article examines teacher talk
and its elements—kinds of language,
functions of language, promoting
children’s thinking, and power—during
small group activities with 2- and
3-year-olds. After observing and video-
taping activities in two early childhood
classrooms, we are convinced that
teachers can promote children’s think-
ing and encourage their participation
in authentic conversations (Durden &
Rainer Dangel 2008). We examine how
two teachers (in toddler and preschool
classrooms) talk to children and facili-
tate small group activities to encour-
age children’s thinking.
The power of teacher talk
Teacher talk is a powerful classroom
tool. Studies document the impor-
tance of teacher language in children’s
development (Kontos & Wilcox-Herzog
1997). in early literacy development
(Genishi 1988; Roskos & Neuman 1993;
Smith & Dickinson 1994; Girolametto
&Weitzman 2002), in children’s per-
ceptions of self and others (Colwell
& Lindsey 2003), and in facilitating
play (Wilcox-Herzog & Kontos 1998;
Kontos 1999). Sociocultural theories
suggest the power of language to con-
vey and construct meaning. Because
language has cultural and psychologi-
As teachers we need
to question our lan-
guage in terms of the
context it provides for
7 4 Young C/ir/dren* January 2010
cai functions—communicating and
thinking (Mercer 1995)—teachers’
words and the way they use them
create meaning for children as well as
for themselves. Johnson (2004) and
Barratt-Pugh (1997) remind us that
it is important to consider the actual
words we say to children; “It is not
only the songs, rhymes, and books
that present a particular view of the
world, but the very language we use”
(Barratt-Pugh 1997, 87).
The literature also provides prac-
tical suggestions on how to talk to
young children and offers basic guide-
lines for conversations with children
(Mooney 2005), common purposes or
functions of language (Kumpulainen &
Wray 2002; Mooney 2005), and activi-
ties for developing children’s language
(Massey 2005; Sharp 2005). Mooney
(2005), for example, suggests getting
down to children’s level, using simple
words and short sentences, and
remembering the importance of body
language and tone of voice. She also
identifies four specific functions or
purposes of teacher language: provid-
ing direction or instruction, correcting
or redirecting behavior, developing
concepts or skills, and discussing
classroom or famiiy life. Sharp (2005)
recommends activities such as songs,
poetry, and role play to help children
access the language of school. These
suggestions are helpful, but as teach-
ers we also need to question our
language in terms of the context it
provides for children’s thinking.
Mr. Max, who teaches 2-year-olds,
is calm, reserved, and a good listener.
Mrs. Mollie, who teaches 3-year-olds,
is energetic and talkative. It is spring,
and both classrooms are full of flow-
ers, seedlings, insects, colorful eggs,
and baby chicks. Mrs. Mollie and
her children are making “ants on a
log” snacks, decorating yogurt cups
as flower vases, and planting grass
seeds in milk cartons. Every day Mrs.
Moilie brings items from her home to
share with the children—for example,
celery, tall grass, or fresh flowers. In
Mr. Max’s class, children are sculpting
with ciay, drawing with wax pencils,
decorating Mother’s Day cards, and
playing with plastic insects and a bal-
Mrs. Mollie and Mr. Max bring dif-
ferent styles of teaching and interact-
ing with children to their respective
classrooms. However, both recognize
the importance of offering small group
activities tbat model descriptive lan-
guage, make connections to children’s
homes and families, allow the children
to initiate conversations, and challenge
them to think beyond the moment.
Both teachers value small group
activities as ideal opportunities to talk
with and listen to children. They inten-
tionally plan activities that encourage
not only conversation but also think-
ing. They set up conditions and activi-
ties that give children
and require their
There are materials for
the children to investi-
gate, and often a child
or the teacher goes to
find new materials, as
ideas call for them.
tional manner. Both teachers welcome
children who are not participating in
the small group activity to join the
conversation; they are not considered
interruptions. There are materials for
the children to investigate, and often
a child or the teacher goes to find
new materials, as ideas call for them.
The activities themselves are open-
ended—that is, while teachers might
The activities in
both classrooms have
They are (1) flexible,
(2) voluntary for chil-
dren, and (3) open-
ended, and (4) they
offer materials for the
children to explore.
Typically, in their
Mollie and Mr. Max
invite three to five
children to join in
an informal, small
children are free to
leave at any time. The
teachers begin the
conversation, and the
children initiate and
interject ideas, all in
a relaxed, conversa-
Young Children *Jar\uary 2010 7S
guide children on how to use some
materials (such as glue), tbere are no
Mrs. Mollie and Mr. Max consider
the kinds of language they use. their
purpose in using the language, issues
of power, and language that promotes
children’s thinking. We will discuss
each of these points in the following
sections; even though they are pre-
sented separately for emphasis, they
are intertwined and should be consid-
Kinds of language
The types of questions and state-
ments teachers use with children céui
have an effect on children’s thinking
(Fowell & Lawton 1992; Massey 2005).
Most of the language used by Mrs.
Moilie and Mr. Max are in the form of
questions and statements. Rarely do
tbey command children to do some-
thing. Their language is encouraging,
extending, descriptive, and relevant to
Language that extends chil-
dren’s language. Mr. Max repeats
and extends children’s questions and
statements, not only correcting words
and grammar but also expanding
their vocabulary and extending tbeir
ideas, as recommended by Cazden
(1972) in her early work on expan-
sion and extension in language that is
interesting and personally meaning-
ful to children. Here is an example of
an exchange between Mr. Max and a
2-year-old child about weighing plastic
insects on a balance scale.
Teacher: How did you make it bal-
ance like that?
Child: I maked it balance with one
down and one up.
Teacher: Oh, I see. You made it even.
How can you make the other side
Child: Oh, oh, look.
Teacher: That must have been a
heavy insect. Maybe that one was
Child: That one [side] have two.
Mrs. Mollie also uses descriptive
language and provides specific word-
ing (avoiding nonspecific words such
as that and there, when possible).
She thinks aloud and describes her
actions as sbe completes tbem. For
example, while assisting children with
an art project, she says,
“OK, let me wipe this spill up. I
should put the water in something
else…. I’ll put a paper towel
under the cup so if the water spills,
it will spill on the paper towel.”
Language that encourages chil-
dren through specific feedback.
In addition to extending children’s
talk, teacher talk is encouraging and
lets children know that their teacher
values their efforts and accomplish-
ments. Mr. Max uses both questions
and statements to provide feedback
and encourage children in their
efforts. His comments range from task
specific to general encouragement.
For example, he may comment to a
small group that he has noticed them
working hard, or he may speak with
an individual child about her selec-
tion of colors. Here are some exam-
ples observed during small group
“Wow, Angie, you have spent a long
time working on a big project!”
“That’s so colorful! It really stands
out on that purple paper.”
“Whoa! You guys chose a lot of coi-
ors to work with.”
Rather than simpiy saying “Good job,”
Mr Max gives children feedback that
is specific and focused on the process
Teacher talk is encour-
aging and lets children
know that their teacher
values their efforts and
76 Young Children* January 2010
Language that makes connec-
tions to children’s lives. Mrs. Moitié
incorporates many references to
school activities and the children’s
homes and families in her conversa-
tions. For example, as the group fin-
ishes making vases, she mentions the
dandelions the children had collected
on the playground:
“You can take this vase to your
home, and il your mommy has
some dandelions in your yard, like
the ones on the playground, you
can ask your mom if you can pick
them for the vase.”
(Note that this is also an example of
how words can carry assumptions—in
this case, that the children have yards
and that there might be dandelions
in the yards. In analyzing their lan-
guage, teachers should evaluate their
assumptions and underlying purposes
Functions of teachers*
Preschool teachers use language
to communicate with children for
multiple purposes. Mr Max and Mrs.
Mollie use language for seven primary
1. encouraging participation
2. responding to children’s needs and
3. managing the class or providing a
4. fostering children’s language
5. conveying ideas
6. assessing children’s knowledge
7. promoting children’s thinking
It wouldn’t be unusual to hear Mr.
Max managing small group activities
by saying, “Ronald, there is only room
for four people to roll the playdough
at one time. When one of the chil-
dren is finished, you can have a turn
with playdough too.” In Mrs. MoUie’s
classroom, the primary functions or
purposes of her talk are to encourage
participation, foster children’s lan-
guage, and convey ideas. Questions to
promote children’s thinking are also
evident (for example, “What do these
remind you of?”), but she asks few
formal questions to assess children’s
knowledge (such as, “How many eggs
are there?”). Here, Mrs. Mollie asks a
child to compare and think beyond
the immediate focus on celery:
Teacher: What other vegetable
makes a crunch when you bite it?
Teacher Carrots do make a crunch.
How do you eat carrots?
Child: With my teeth.
Teacher: You know what? That’s
why you need strong teetfi to bite
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Young Cfi/Wren* January 2010 77
into fruits and vegetables. If you
didn’t have strong teeth, how
could you bite that celery, or an
apple, or a carrot?
Promoting children’s thinking
Children s thinking, like talking,
may go unnoticed. Teachers have to
carefully organize time, space, and
materials to encourage children to
think (Hubbard 1998). We believe
Challenging talk builds on what children say and moves
beyond the immediate conversational context.
teacher talk that challenges children
to use and build their cognitive skills
is one of the most important functions
of language. Challenging talk builds on
wbat children say and moves beyond
Questions to Guide Reflection on
Language Use with Young Children
Small Group Activities
Are activities flexible to accommodate
children’s ideas? Are they conversa-
Are activities and materials open-
ended, so children can make
choices about what to do and what
to use to carry out their plans?
Do activities invite children to explore
or use interesting or authentic
Do children choose whether to partici-
pate and when to leave the activity?
What kinds of thinking do the activities
Kinds of Language
Does my language help children
make connections to their lives, their
homes, their families?
Does my feedback motivate children
to think more deeply? To share their
Do my comments and questions help
children expand their vocabulary?
Extend their ideas?
Do I “think out loud”?
Functions of Language
What is the intended purpose of my
comment or question?
Am I purposefully trying to challenge
children’s thinking? Assess their
thinking? Encourage their lan-
guage? Convey ideas? Guide their
Does my conversation build on chil-
Is there a balance of these func-
tions of language—encouraging
participation, responding to chil-
dren’s needs and ideas, managing
the class or providing a necessary
instruction, fostering children’s lan-
guage, conveying ideas, assessing,
and promoting children’s thinking?
Promoting Children’s Thinking
What kinds of language do I use to
challenge children’s thinking?
What opportunities do I provide to
expand children’s thinking?
Do I encourage children to think
beyond one-word responses?
Do I encourage children to make
connections, make comparisons,
ofïeran opinion, or imagine?
Who controls what is said and done
during small group activities?
Is there a balance of teacher and
Does my language show respect for
Does my language allow children to
initiate ideas and share equally in
the immediate conversational context
(Smith & Dickinson 1994; Nekovei &
Ermis 2006). Instead of asking, “Does
it fly?” or “What did you make?” for
example, ask “How does it fly?” or
“What was your favorite part of mak-
Questions that promote children’s
thinking require children to think
beyond one-word responses to make
connections, compare, and hypoth-
esize. Using Tizard and colleagues’
(1982) categories of questions, here
are examples of cognitive challenges
we heard during Mrs. Mollie’s and Mr.
Max’s small group activities:
Label—What is this called?
Describe—What do these look like to
Explain—How does it work?
Connect to prior knowledge—What
do these remind you of?
Compare—What other vegetable is
like tbis one?
Hypothesize—^What do you think this is?
Imagine possibilities—Guess what
happened when .
Offer an opinion—Why do you like this?
Evaluate—What do you like about tbis?
Power and teachers’ language
Another important consideration in
examining teacher-child conversations
is the role of power (who decides who
talks, when, and about what). Do the
experience and the language encour-
age children to initiate ideas and
share regularly in the conversation?
Who controls what is said and done?
Is there a balance of teacher and child
talk? Sharing power during conversa-
tions and allowing children to initiate
conversations maximizes children’s
voices (Hayes & Matusov 2005).
fconi’d on p. BO)
78 Young Children* January 2010
Both reciprocal and
tions take place in Mrs.
Mollie and Mr. Max’s
this exchange from Mrs,
Child: Mrs, Mollie, orange
Teacher What will they
Teacher Orange trees,
right? If you have an
orange seed at your
house, bring it and we’ll
plant it. Or an apple or
Child: Mrs. Mollie, my
mommy didn’t buy any.
Teacher Well, maybe she
We noticed that when
children initiated a conver-
sation, they often began
with complete thoughts (phrases or
sentences), but when they responded
to teachers, they often used single
words. Children tend to actively par-
ticipate in conversations that they
initiate, that are relevant to them,
and that invite reciprocal exchanges
(Hayes & Matusov 2005).
In both classrooms, the small group
activities included teacher- and child-
centered approaches. Kumpulainen
and Wray (2002) distinguish teacher-
centered activities, those in which
children step into the teacher’s
way of thinking, from child- or peer-
centered activities that are charac-
terized by negotiation of meaning.
From our observations, both types
of approaches have some similar
characteristics (such as informality
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and interesting materials), but the
language varies according to whether
the teacher’s or children’s influence is
predominant. In most teacher-directed
activities, teachers use closed-ended
questions and declarative sentences,
but child-oriented activities involve
open-ended questions that provoke
children’s thinking and make connec-
tions to real-life experiences.
We found that the approach influ-
ences the function, the power, and the
promotion of children’s thinking. In
both approaches, teachers respond
to children’s needs and model appro-
priate language; however, in child-
centered activities, teachers’ language
focuses more on encouraging partici-
pation, extending language, and pro-
moting thinking and less on managing
instruction and conveying information
(Durden & Rainer Dangei 2008). Child-
centered activities promote more
reciprocal and child-initiated conver-
sations. In addition, the conversations
tend to be more cognitively challeng-
ing and authentic—an observation
consistent with Cazden’s work (1972).
80 Young Children* Jariuar^ 2010
Our choice of words is important
(Johnson 2004). Consider the power of
a hurtful word or how words are used
in advertising to persuade us to buy
products. Words shape our attitudes,
feelings, and thoughts. Yet language is
such a part of our lives that we often
take it for granted. As educators, we
must continually ask ourselves how
we can use language for our ultimate
purpose: to support children’s devel-
opment and learning.
Videotaping small group activities
can help teachers reflect on their
own use of language and the language
children use. “Questions to Guide
Reflection on Language Use with
Young Children” (p.78) also can help
teachers examine the language they
use when talking with children.
Teachers can improve the qual-
ity of early childhood education by
focusing on their language as well as
the conditions likely to produce effec-
tive interactions (Kontos & Wilcox-
Herzog 1997). During child-centered
small group activities, early child-
hood teachers can carefully attend to
language, including its purpose, its
power, and how it promotes children’s
Barratt-Pugh, C. 1997. “Why d’you speak
funny?” Supporting all children learning to
talk and talking to learn. In Working witti the
umler-.3’s: Responding to children’s needs, ed.
L. Abbott & H. Moylett. Bristol, PA: Open
Cazden, C. 1972. Child language and education.
New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Colwell, M., & E. Lindsey. 2003. Teacher-child
interactions and preschool children’s per-
ceptions of self and peers. Early Child Devel-
opment and Care 173 (2-3): 249-58.
Durden, T., & J. Rainer Dangel. 2008. Teacher-
involved conversations with young children
during small group activity. Early Years: An
International Journal of Research and Devel-
opment 2S ÇS): 235-50.
Koweli, N., & J. Lawton. 1992. Dependencies
between questions and responses during
small group instruction in two preschool
programs. Early Childhood Research Quar-
terly 1 (3): 415-39.
Gentshi, C. 1988. Young children’s oral tanguage
development. ED 301361. Urbana, IL: ERIC
Document Reproduction Service.
Girolanietto, L., & E. Weitzman. 2002. Respon-
siveness of child care providers in inter-
action with toddlers and preschoolers.
Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in
5C/IOO/.S 33: 268-81.
Hayes, R., & E. Matusov. 2005. Designing for
dialogue in place of teacher talk and student
silence. Culture & Psychology 11 (3): 339-57.
Hubbard, R.S. 1998. Creating a classroom
where children can think. Young Children 53
Johnson, P. 2004. Choice words. Portland, ME:
Kontos, S. 1999. Preschool teachers’ talk, roles
and activities settings during free play. Early
Childhood Research Quarterly 14 (3): 363-82.
Kontos, S., & A.Wilcox-Herzog. 1997. Teachers’
interactions with children: Why are they so
important? Young Children 52 (2): 4-12.
Kumpuiainen. K., & D. Wray. 2002. Classroom
interaction and social learning. New York:
Massey, S. 2005. Teacher-child conversation
in the preschool classroom. Early Childhood
Education JournafM (4): 227-31.
Mercer, N. 1995. The guided construction of
knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learn-
ers. Clevedon, Avon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Mooney, C. 2005. Use your words: How teacher
talk helps children learn. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf.
Nekovei, D., & S. Ermis. 2006. Creating class-
rooms that promote rich vocabularies (or
at-risk learners. Young Children 61 (5): 90-95.
Roskos, K., &S. Neuman. 1993. Descriptive
observations of adults’ facilitation of literacy
in young children’s play. Early Childhood
Research Quarterly 8: 77-97.
Sharp, E. 2005. Learning through talk in the
early yean. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Smith, M.W., &D.K. Dickinson. 1994. Describ-
ing oral language opportunities and environ-
ments in Head Start and other preschool
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terly 9 (3/4): 345-66.
Tizard, B., M. Hughes. G. Pinkerton, & H. Car-
michael. 1982. Adults’ cognitive demands at
home and at nursery school. Journal of Child
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nature of teacher talk in early childhood
classrooms and its relationship to children’s
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Genetic Psychology 159 (1): 30-44.
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Candidates must possess doctoral degree in child development or a related field and
demonstrate commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry and integration of theory, research,
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experience. Experience supervising early childhood development professionals and
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education and care of young children is necessary. Specific areas of expertise might be
teacher development/inquiry; reading, digital, science, or math literacy; curriculum
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Young Children • March 2009
1, 2, 3®
istening to children seems
so simple. But when you’re fetching
water to clean up the paint area, won-
dering where the CD has disappeared
to, and waving to a mother coming
in the door, trying to listen to a child
following behind you can become
challenging. It is easy for listening to
become just one more task that a busy
teacher must tend to.
I spent several months in a child
care center talking with and listening
to young children as part of a research
project. This experience taught me
lessons in how much children are
telling us, if only we can hear them. In
particular it taught me about the art of
Reading the work of others helped
me prepare to conduct the research.
Dahlberg and Moss describe the sig-
nificance of listening, within the peda-
gogy of the schools of Reggio Emilia,
as involving “an ethical relationship
of openness to the Other, trying to
listen to the Other from his or her
own position and experience and not
treating the Other as the same” (2006,
15). Cannella speaks of accepting that
children “can speak for themselves”
and of searching “for ways that we can
learn to listen” (1997, 166). Gonzalez-
Mena (2001) describes a strategy of
finding the “third space” in conversa-
tions across cultures, the space that is
beyond both your culture and my cul-
ture, where we can listen to each other
openly. Here the space I was looking
for was one that moved beyond the
expectations of what it was to be
either adult or child, either expert or
novice. From such readings the image
of stepping back emerged.
For me, stepping back meant not
only slowing down and really listening,
but also consciously shifting my mind
from the immediacy of the conversa-
tion to consider it from other perspec-
tives. Being prepared to do this, and
to relinquish my own narrow agenda,
allowed me to hear other messages,
messages that were often not related to
the questions I had been considering.
Exploring the hidden
conversations with children
My research explored the scope
of what children learn in a child care
center. While the starting point was
the teachers’ planning, the central
focus was on the indirect learning
(what some call the “hidden curricu-
lum”). This kind of learning includes
what children learn from one another,
and the implicit messages conveyed
by the teachers and by the environ-
ment’s structure and resources. As
the researcher, I was committed to
focusing on the children’s voices and
keeping them at the forefront at every
stage of the research.
These are the voices that Cannella
(1997) has called the “most critical
Conversations with a 2-Year-Old
Alison Stephenson, MEd, Dip Tch, is an
early childhood program director at Victo-
ria University in Wellington, New Zealand.
She has written on a range of curriculum
areas, including young children’s outdoor
Photos © Ellen B. Senisi.
Stepping Back to
isten to Jeff
Young Children • March 2009 91
voices,” the voices that have so often
been missing from research about
early childhood education. Focusing
on the children’s voices was also a
way of interrupting my own patterns
of thinking, of seeing things in another
way. Early on I wrote a list of ques-
tions to guide me in interacting with
children, and rereading these was a
useful reminder of the kinds of inter-
action I wanted to have with the chil-
dren. The questions included,
• How can children engage with this
topic in a way that interests them?
• How open am I to following the chil-
I found that many children were
eager to spend time with an adult
who was keen to listen to them. The
challenge was to search for ways of
talking with them that they would find
engaging and that would allow them
to share their ideas.
I asked families for permission for
their children to participate in my
research. There was also a consent
form for children. I asked parents to
decide if their child would understand
My starting point was to spend time with children, listen-
ing to and talking with them down at their physical level. I
enjoyed the interaction because I was genuinely interested
in them and in their ideas. In this study, I used the following
strategies with children ages 2, 3, and 4. They would work
for any teacher or researcher talking with children.
• To focus conversations about the environment, I shared
a folder of photographs of places both inside and outside
the center, including adult spaces such as the office and the
• To allow children to express their likes or dislikes, I used
a chart with photographs of different activities and events in
the center, plus counters with happy faces and sad faces.
I asked the children to show me which activities they liked
the best, but also asked if there were activities they didn’t
like. Because there were more photographs than counters,
children had to make choices.
• To show which places were most significant to them
during photo tours of the center, the children used a digital
camera. After I asked the children, “Show me your favorite
place,” they took photographs (or asked me to take photo-
graphs). I gave prints of the photos to the child photogra-
phers on my next visit, which offered a chance for a further
• To engage children in focused discussions about their
learning in the center, I invited them to photograph their
favorite pages in their learning portfolios as we looked at
them together. A portfolio includes ongoing documentation
of a child’s learning recorded in words, photographs, and
artwork. Each family receives their child’s portfolio at the
end of the year, when the child leaves the classroom.
• To elicit more of the children’s ideas about aspects of
center life, I asked individuals or small groups to help me
work on unfinished storybooks. One of the storybooks con-
cerned a new child who started at a center and then asked
children and teachers to teach her so that she could be like
them. This was designed to let children share their ideas
about what children learn from one another, as well as from
• To get more direct answers on some issues, I helped chil-
dren complete a questionnaire. The questions included,
o What do you like doing at your center?
o What are you really good at?
o What are you learning to do?
o Whom do you like to play with at the center?
o Is there anyone you don’t like to play with?
Along with these particular research strategies, I spent a
great deal of time observing the children and writing notes,
talking with children either individually or in groups, and
joining them in their play when invited. At times, and with
the children’s permission, I tape-recorded conversations
and episodes of play. At other times I kept field notes.
Listening to the answers
Listening is paramount. I found that how I listened gov-
erned what I heard. When I consciously stepped back from
the interaction, from my own expectations of what I might
hear, and listened with an attitude of respect, with open-
ness, and in the anticipation that I might hear answers
to questions that had not been asked, I was sometimes
rewarded with new insights of what it was like to be a
young child in a center setting.
Strategies I Used in Talking with Children
I was committed to
focusing on the chil-
dren’s voices and
keeping them at the
forefront at every
stage of the research.
• How can I avoid children giving me
the answer they think I want to hear?
• What are the power dynamics in this
92 Young Children • March 2009
the process; many helped their child
complete the form.
What I learned by stepping
back and listening to Jeff
While there were 35 children
involved in the research, this is the
story of 2-year-old Jeff and what I was
able to learn from him. Jeff was a quiet
boy with a mass of curly hair. My first
impression of Jeff was his solemn
smile and big, watchful brown eyes, as
he sidled up alongside me to listen to
what was happening. Later, as I got to
know him better, I came to appreciate
the scope of his knowledge and the
thoughtfulness of his responses.
I used my folder of photographs
of different parts of the center as a
focus for informal conversations with
children. Talking with children about
the photos of indoor and outdoor play
areas and adult spaces, like the office
and the kitchen, provided a way of
finding out the names children used to
refer to different places at the center
and on the playground. Even quite
young children with little language
were drawn into this activity and
seemed to enjoy identifying familiar
places. However, listening to what
children said about the photographs
taught me far more.
Exploring children’s ideas about
different spaces at the center
When Jeff looked at the picture of
the room where the dress-ups and
the family play equipment were kept,
he called it “the girl room,” but then
after some thought, he amended this
to “the girl room and the boy room
and the pretend babies,” which sug-
gested he might be juggling different
messages he had received about who
dresses up, and perhaps even who
plays with dolls and cares for babies.
Children’s problem solving
Unexpected moments of interac-
tion offered me insights into Jeff’s way
of thinking and what his experience
of child care might be. One day a
younger boy asked me to watch him
spinning a hoop around his waist.
I tried to take a photograph of the
moment the hoop whirled before it
dropped to the ground, but each time
I was too slow and only captured the
hoop hitting the grass. I laughed about
the problem and asked him to try just
one more time—but still no success!
Jeff watched and listened, and when
it was his turn to have a photo taken,
he held the hoop high above his head
waiting for me to take the photograph.
Puzzled at first, I soon realized that he
had solved the problem of the hoop
hitting the ground. Working within
my own frame of thinking, which was
focused on capturing the whirling
hoop, meant it would have been easy
to dismiss his solution. Seeing the
problem from his perspective allowed
me to acknowledge he had found a
creative solution to a problem I could
at the center
Another day, Jeff was on the play-
ground beside me as I watched the
children play. He looked across to see
4-year-old Evie sitting on a wooden
ride-on truck. Jeff often used this truck,
so I was not surprised to see him
watching her. I was surprised, however,
by the conversation that followed.
Jeff said to me, “That girl’s having
it.” I was curious about his use of the
words that girl, as Evie was a child who
attended the center five days a week.
When I asked him if he knew the name
of “that girl,” he said no. Because Jeff
had been coming to the center three
days a week for several months, I was
astonished that he did not know her
name. However, his response high-
lighted for me another assumption I
had made as an adult: Because I knew
every child in the center, I expected
that the children would also know
each other. Yet when I watched indi-
vidual children, I saw how infrequently
their paths might cross during a day.
I used my folder of pho-
tographs of different
parts of the center as a
focus for informal conver-
sations with children.
Young Children • March 2009 93
A tour with Jeff
Inviting children to give me a tour
of the center and take photographs of
their favorite places was a strategy I
used for talking with children about
the environment. I gave the children
the option of taking the photographs
or of being in the photos in places and
with people they nominated. Jeff was
one of the youngest children who took
me on a photo tour, and like most of
the other 2- and 3-year-olds, he chose
to have me take photographs with him
in them. A description of Jeff’s photo
tour provides the final example of
what I learned by stepping back in my
Research on Talking with Children
While there is only limited research that focuses on the ideas of children
younger than 5 (for example, Carr 2000; Clark & Moss 2001; Wiltz & Klein 2001;
Sumsion 2003; Godfrey & Cemore 2005; DeMarie & Ethridge 2006; Clark 2007),
such studies suggest a number of ways of talking with children. This research
can provide a useful starting point for teachers or other researchers who want to
pursue more conversations with children. Here are some areas of consideration.
Group size and setting. The informal interview, for either individuals or small
groups, is a well-established approach. Discussions in the research include the
effectiveness of interviews with single children, pairs, and small groups (Smith,
Duncan, & Marshall 2005), and provide thoughts on the potential benefits of
group interviews (Graue & Walsh 1998; Ring 2000; Lewis 2001) as well as the
challenges they present (Dockrell, Lewis, & Lindsay 2000; Ring 2000; Hedges
2002). Some researchers comment on the setting for talking with children and
the benefits of using a separate room (Nespor 1998; Dockrell, Lewis, & Lindsay
2000) or of talking with children while they are engaged in classroom activities.
Questions. Examples of the kinds of questions researchers ask children are
useful. These include questions about what children like and dislike about
their classrooms (Lewis 2001) and their teachers (Godfrey & Cemore 2005);
what they like doing best (Wiltz & Klein 2001; Farrell, Tayler, & Tennent 2002);
and why they come to the center/school (Ring 2000; Godfrey & Cemore
2005). In exploring children’s engagement in learning, Smith, Duncan, and
Marshall (2005) asked questions about why children were involved in an activ-
ity and whether the activity challenged them.
Tools. Researchers have used a variety of tools when talking with children.
Carr (2000) used the structure of a partially completed book as a focus for
conversations about learning. Ring (2000) used smiley faces on question-
naires about what children liked doing. Godfrey and Cemore (2005), stress-
ing the importance of play-based conversations, used props to represent the
child care setting. Dockrell, Lewis, and Lindsay (2000) reported on ingenious
devices used as rating scales with children. Drawing has also been used for
children to express ideas in interviews (Wiltz & Klein 2001).
Researchers increasingly use photographs. Photographs of recent activities
in the setting were used as a focus in individual and group interviews (Wiltz &
Klein 2001; Smith, Duncan, & Marshall 2005; DeMarie & Ethridge 2006). Chil-
dren also photograph their favorite places or activities in the setting (Clark &
Moss 2001; Clark 2004; Cremin & Slatter 2004; Greenfield 2004; Einarsdottir
2005; DeMarie & Ethridge 2006). A number of researchers use video to record
interactions, and both adults (see Wiltz & Klein 2001) and children (Clark
2004) have used tape recorders for this purpose.
the mountain flat. During this process
I twice suggested that we take a photo,
and he agreed both times. He said I
should push the quick view and show
him because his hands were sandy.
After moving to another part of
the sandbox, Jeff began another sand
mountain. A 3-year-old girl came
along, and Jeff invited her to help.
“Katie’s gone,” he commented to me
when, a few moments later, she left
and dug elsewhere. In this mountain
he introduced rabbit holes—he dug
one on his side and told me to dig one
When Jeff approached me, I asked
him if he would like to show me his
favorite places so we could take photo-
graphs of them, and he seemed keen.
On the way out to the playground, he
paused at a table where stamps and
stamp pads (equipment that was not
often available) had been set up. He
chose this as his first “favorite” expe-
rience. After a few minutes of using
the stamps, he then led me outside to
the sandbox. Here he decided that we
would build something together rather
than take a photograph.
At his suggestion we made a sand
castle, which he later called a moun-
tain. He dug out the side of the moun-
tain, and then said he was making a
waterfall with the sand. He picked up a
truck, rolled it down the waterfall sev-
eral times, then stood up and stamped
Inviting children to give
me a tour of the center
and take photographs of
their favorite places was
a strategy I used for talk-
ing with children about
94 Young Children • March 2009
on my side. We excavated until the
An older boy arrived, and Jeff also
invited him to join us: “Do you want to
help us, Aidy?” By this stage we were
at our third site and Jeff had found
us two buckets and two scoops. The
three of us used the sand, buckets,
and scoops to make “dinner” and
“cake.” While we “cooked,” Jeff told
me his nana was picking him up that
day with his new booster seat, and
that he had scrambled eggs and bacon
the night before for dinner.
Soon Jeff left the sandbox and made
his way over to a ride-on truck with a
trailer attached. He got on the truck,
and had some difficulty turning and
backing it up with the trailer attached.
When the trailer became detached, he
climbed off and reattached it. He told
me he was driving off “to get a load.”
I wondered aloud if it would be a load
of blocks (the plastic blocks were
nearby), but he returned with some
bark chips and told me he had “a load
of books for the library.” I reacted
enthusiastically, and he said he would
get a big load. I reminded him about
taking photos of favorite places, and
I asked if he wanted me to take one of
him and the truck. He agreed.
I took the photo and then explained
that I had to leave soon. We arranged
that I would wave when I drove away.
Ten minutes later, when I drove past
the fence, Jeff was still in that area of
the playground, and he looked up and
What I learned from Jeff
I could have driven away that day
thinking that the last hour had been
wasted and how little I had learned
about Jeff’s favorite places. But step-
ping back from my research agenda
and thinking outside the framework
of my planned activity allowed me to
hear other messages from our inter-
action. What did I learn about Jeff? I
learned that his motivation was not
to take photographs, or to be photo-
graphed, or even to show me favorite
places. Rather, it seemed he was
happy to spend time with an inter-
ested adult, suggesting that for him it
might be the company rather than the
place that was significant.
Moreover, while my earlier obser-
vations had often showed that he
usually played independently, here I
found that he initiated contact with
other children and invited them into
his play, at least when an adult was
there. While he accepted my plan, it
was an aside to his agenda of using his
own experiences in his play and incor-
porating others into that.
Jeff offered me a glimpse into the
wealth of experiences that he drew on
in his imaginative play—the mountain,
the waterfall, the rabbit holes, the
cooking, the trip to the library—which
reminded me yet again not to make
age-based assumptions. Recalling that
he had shared with me details of his
family and his home life, I reflected on
the significance of the link between
center and home. While this link is a
fundamental tenet of early childhood
education, I was struck yet again by
just how strongly this emerged as a
significant area of interest for Jeff, and
I wondered how effectively teachers
support this focus on the home.
While the hour with Jeff had given
me little quantitative data to enter in
a table of favorite places, it had chal-
lenged my thinking about the concept
of choosing favorite places and about
the knowledge and experience of
2-year-olds. It provoked me to think
again about what might constitute a
Stepping back from
my research agenda
and thinking outside
the framework of
my planned activity
allowed me to hear
other messages from
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of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at
In my time with the children, I
learned that each child has a different
style, and is likely to talk in differ-
ent ways and in different contexts. I
needed to find ways they could com-
municate that were enjoyable for them.
I also learned that it was only ever
possible to see a tiny part of life in
a center. Even after five months of
observations, I knew that I was see-
ing only a few hours each day. Adults
and children were often spread out, so
there was always much that I missed.
But most significantly, I learned about
the importance of listening to children.
Stepping back became a strategy
that helped me listen with an open-
ness that allowed me to hear unex-
pected meanings in what children
shared with me. Stepping back from
my own research agenda allowed me
to understand some of the wealth of
other insights that children offered.
Thank you to Jeff and the other chil-
dren. It was a privilege to work with
such motivated, innovative, thought-
ful, and responsive people.
Cannella, G.S. 1997. Deconstructing early child-
hood education: Social justice and revolution.
New York: Peter Lang.
Carr, M. 2000. Seeking children’s perspectives
about their learning. In Children’s voices:
Research, policy and practice, eds. A.B.
Smith, N.J. Taylor, & M.M. Gollop, 37–55.
Auckland: Pearson Educational.
Clark, A. 2004. The Mosaic approach and
research with young children. In The reality
of research with children and young people,
eds. V. Lewis, M. Kellett, C. Robinson, S.
Fraser, & S. Ding. London: Sage.
Clark, A. 2007. A hundred ways of listening:
Gathering children’s perspectives of their
early childhood environment. Young Children
62 (3): 76–81.
Clark, A., & P. Moss. 2001. Listening to young
children: The Mosaic approach. London:
National Children’s Bureau and Joseph
Cremin, H., & B. Slatter. 2004. Is it possible to
access the “voice” of preschool children?
Results of a research project in a preschool
setting. Educational Studies 30 (4): 457–70.
Dahlberg, G., & P. Moss. 2006. Introd. to In dia-
logue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, research-
ing and learning, by C. Rinaldi, 1–22. London:
DeMarie, D., & E.A. Ethridge. 2006. Children’s
images of preschool: The power of photogra-
phy. Young Children 61 (1): 101–04.
Dockrell, J., A. Lewis, & G. Lindsay. 2000.
Researching children’s perspectives: A
psychological dimension. In Researching
children’s perspectives, eds. A. Lewis & G.
Lindsay, 46–58. Buckingham: Open Univer-
Einarsdottir, J. 2005. Playschool in pictures:
Children’s photographs as a research
method. Early Child Development and Care
175 (6): 523–41.
Farrell, A., C. Tayler, & L. Tennent. 2002. Early
childhood services: What can children tell
us? Australian Journal of Early Childhood 27
Godfrey, M.K., & J.J. Cemore. 2005. “Yeah, I like
it!” Assessing what children think of child
care. Young Children 60 (4): 86–93.
Gonzalez-Mena, J. 2001. Embracing contraries:
From cultural differences to common con-
cerns. Paper presented at the New Zealand
Childcare Association Conference, Hamilton,
New Zealand, 13–15 July.
Graue, M.E., & D.J. Walsh. 1998. Studying
children in context: Theories, methods, and
ethics. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Greenfield, C. 2004. Transcript: “Can run, play
on bikes, jump on the zoom slide, and play
on the swings”: Exploring the value of out-
door play. Australian Journal of Early Child-
hood 29 (2): 1–5.
Hedges, H. 2002. Beliefs and principles in prac-
tice: Ethical research with child participants.
New Zealand Research in Early Childhood
Education 5: 31–47.
Lewis, A. 2001. Research involving young chil-
dren. In Promoting evidence-based practice
in early childhood education: Research and
its implications, ed. T. David, 253–71. Oxford:
Nespor, J. 1998. The meanings of research:
Kids as subjects and kids as inquirers. Quali-
tative Inquiry 4 (3): 369–89.
Ring, K. 2000. Young children talking about
their drawings: Methodological dilemmas.
Paper presented at the British Educational
Research Association Annual Conference,
Cardiff, Wales, 7–10 September.
Smith, A., J. Duncan, & K. Marshall. 2005.
Children’s perspectives on their learning:
Exploring methods. Early Child Development
and Care 175 (6): 473–87.
Sumsion, J. 2003. Researching with children:
Lessons in humility, reciprocity, and com-
munity. Australian Journal of Early Childhood
28 (1): 18–23.
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48 Young Children • March 2011
1, 2, 3
Your attitudes influence if, when,
and how you communicate with
babies. You may be unaware of the
value of talking to babies directly.
Maybe it has not occurred to you to
use language to include the babies
in communication. When you ignore
babies, you tell them they are not val-
ued. When you do not talk to babies,
they are unlikely to understand what
is happening with them.
Talking about babies instead of to
babies discounts them as individuals.
Babies need to be part of the com-
munication process. When you com-
municate with babies, it validates
their self-worth. They will also have a
better chance to understand what is
occurring. Language provides a model
for babies about how to communicate,
and it serves as a vehicle to convey
thoughts and feelings.
Beverly Kovach and
Denise Da Ros-Voseles
To acknowledge each baby by name
To talk directly to each baby about
what is happening
To talk to babies before touching them
To refrain from talking about babies
to others in the baby’s presence
How many times have you watched
this scene unfold? As you approach
two women and a baby, you overhear
one woman say, “What a precious
baby! Isn’t she cute! How old is she
now? Does she sit up yet? Oh! Look at
those bright blue eyes.” The woman
takes the baby’s hands in hers and in
a high-pitched voice exclaims, “Aren’t
you the cute one.” She then talks with
the mother about her baby.
You may have witnessed this scene
countless times. Most adults talk to
other adults about the baby in front
of the baby. The problem with this
is that even though the baby is the
focus of the conversation, he or she is
being described as if she is not there.
Although it’s probably not deliberate
on the part of the adult, by not talking
directly to the baby, the baby is dis-
qualified on a personal level. Repeated
encounters like this tell the baby she
is insignificant. Acknowledging and
speaking directly to the baby by name
tells the baby he or she is respected
as an individual. Magda Gerber used
to tell the story of how her mentor
Emmi Pikler first impressed her. When
Dr. Pikler came to Magda’s home to
visit her sick child, Dr. Pikler talked
to Magda’s daughter using her name
and getting information she needed
directly from the child. This amazed
Magda as it never occurred to her that
her young daughter could give the
doctor that information (Gerber 1978;
Gerber & Johnson 1998). For many
adults, it might not occur to them to
talk directly to a child, let alone a baby.
It can be difficult to get into the
habit of talking with babies. There is
Beverly Kovach, RN, MN, is a consultant to infant/toddler caregivers, providing support
to parents and center-based staff. She is a mentor, teacher, and trainer in Magda Gerber’s
RIE approach, and program coordinator for a birth to 3 Montessori training center.
Denise Da Ros-Voseles, PhD, is an associate professor of early childhood education at
Northeastern State University in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. She teaches undergraduate
and graduate infant and toddler development courses. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is reprinted, by permission, from B. Kovach and D. Da Ros-Voseles, Being
with Babies: Understanding and Responding to the Infants in Your Care (Silver Spring,
MD: Gryphon House, 2008), 72–75. This is chapter 15 of the book.
Being with Babies is available from NAEYC. Illustration © Michael J. Rosen.
Young Children • March 2011 49
Supporting the Many Ways Children Communicate
a vast difference between how babies
communicate and how adults commu-
nicate. Babies use gestures and bab-
ble, which requires close observation.
Also, most adults are better talkers
than listeners. They are better at giv-
ing information than receiving it. Some
adults think that babies do not have
the ability to learn to comprehend. If
you believe that, it’s easy to under-
stand why you do not address or talk
to babies directly. These differences
get in the way of responsive communi-
cation between adults and babies.
Repeated social encounters that are
rich and spontaneous are what fosters
the relationships between babies and
caregivers. Relationships are the most
important ingredient that fuels the
baby and assures the baby’s optimum
health in his first year of life.
What you believe and think about
babies influences how you act. When
you evaluate what you think about
babies, you may decide it is worth-
while to talk with them. There are
approaches to communicate with
babies that convey a personal, respect-
ful, and responsive message to them.
Talking to a baby requires you to
Acknowledge the baby by name.
Wait for the baby’s response.
Include your observation of the
baby’s response in your next message.
Say what you see or think you see
and include those responses.
The above suggestions allow you to
experience an enriched dialogue with
a baby. Sharing information provides
more accurate and tuned-in communi-
cation where preferences and choices
maintain a sense of who babies are as
Sharon is feeding 14-month-old
Allison peas and potatoes for
lunch. Allison turns her head away
from the spoon of peas after her
first taste. Sharon, her caregiver,
says, “Allison you don’t like the
way these peas taste? You turned
your head. Does that mean you
don’t want anymore?” Allison con-
tinues to turn away from the peas.
“Okay, let’s try some potatoes for
now.” This form of communica-
tion shows that the caregiver and
the baby both are in tune to each
other’s behavior and watch each
other’s responses to continue more
accurate communication together.
This way of being together
tells the baby her responses are
acknowledged and included.
Sharon may think peas are good for
Allison but does not force Allison
to eat them. By talking directly to
Allison about what is happening,
Allison is heard and respected for
Eating peas is less important than
the acknowledgement and acceptance
of Allison’s behavior about her pref-
erences. As behaviors are repeated,
Allison and Sharon learn and know
more about each other, which devel-
ops trust and reliability in a mutually
Telling the baby what you are doing
together during caregiving times is
another important communication
issue. Describing your actions with
words helps the baby to understand
and anticipate your next move. Telling
the baby what you are doing together
during caregiving times is another
important way to communicate.
Maria, the caregiver, began to put on
14-month-old Isabella’s sweater to
go out doors. Maria showed Isabella
the sleeve of the sweater, saying,
“I’m going to put your right hand in
the sweater.” Maria then touched
Isabella’s right hand, saying, “I’ll
start here.” Isabella was prepared for
Maria’s signal and attempted to push
her right arm through the sleeve of
the sweater. Maria’s words and actions
signaled Isabella about what was
going to happen, enabling Isabella to
understand and cooperate with Maria.
Telling the baby what
you are doing together
during caregiving times
is another important
50 Young Children • March 2011
Knowing what comes next can reduce
anxiety. Telling babies what will hap-
pen, showing them the steps along the
way, and touching them to give them
clues about what is happening is a
powerful and wonderful way to give
the baby a chance to understand your
actions and intentions. These behav-
iors offer a rich dialogue between you
and the baby that is a nice way for the
baby to stay involved with you.
A few behaviors that help you give
the baby clear messages include the
Calling each baby by his or her name
Speaking directly to the baby
Showing the baby the object or item
you are focusing on
Gently touching the body part you
want to address
Waiting to see if the baby will help
Bending down to the baby’s level
baby for his or her
cooperation when it
Isabella to par-
gently is a wonder-
ful way to show a
ing with babies.
Touch can give the
baby a warning that
something is about
to happen. A caregiver who gently
touches a baby before picking her
up by placing her hand on the baby’s
shoulder gives that baby a beautiful
message of respect and appreciation.
A caregiver who gently
touches a baby before
picking her up by plac-
ing her hand on the
baby’s shoulder gives
that baby a beautiful
message of respect
There are so many small ways that
you can communi-
cate a message of
worth to each baby.
All you need to do
is to stop, appreci-
ate, and believe
that your acknowl-
edgment makes a
provides a valuable
form of communica-
tion and a time to
enjoy each others’
Each baby needs to be acknowl-
edged personally by name and given
the opportunity to communicate. This
ensures that babies understand what
is happening. It also acknowledges
their behavior and personal prefer-
ences as important.
Acknowledge each baby by name.
Let babies know you believe they
can contribute to an interaction or a
Demonstrate and model to
other adults how important it is to
acknowledge and include babies in
Think about babies’ likes and dislikes
when you communicate with them.
Use gentle touch to signal and/or
ask for participation.
Gerber, M. 1978. On Their Own with Our Help.
Video. Los Angeles, CA: Resources for Infant
Gerber, M., & A. Johnson. 1998. Your Self-Con-
fident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s
Natural Abilities—From the Very Start. New
Copyright © 2008 by Beverly Kovach and Denise Da
Ros-Voseles. For permissions, contact Gryphon House,
Inc. at 800-638-0928 or www.gryphonhouse.com.©
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EDUC6358: Strategies for Working with Diverse Children
“Communicating with Young Children”
NARRATOR: Sensitivity, respect, acceptance, reflective listening, and providing the space for
each child to be her unique self, Lisa Kolbeck, director of Little School of Family Childcare, shares
her philosophy and suggestions with regard to communicating with children.
LISA KOLBECK: In my experience working with children, the way I know a child is to see their
play. And the way I can find out about their play is first watch them, and then ask them questions
about where they are in their play-mind. So what we saw Luna being today, being an owl, is a
metaphor for a deep part of herself. The first clue that I had this morning when she first came in,
she said, what are these named? And she pointed to the owl’s talons. And I said, talons. And she
said, I have talons.
So that was my clue for that was going to be Luna’s play metaphor for the day. Children don’t
always keep such a strong one idea. Many children bounce between many play ideas. But you
can always count on Luna to hold onto one play idea. As an experienced teacher, I know I can
use Luna’s play idea in my curriculum. She had really become an owl, because she had the
wings on, and she had the face painting on.
So her internal owl self was kind of coming out. So my first job is to help children communicate
with each other. And to do that, they have to feel listened to and seen. And for Miley, what I knew
is that it was a perfect place for her, because there were no other children. It wasn’t noisy. She’s
a very quiet child. And her voice gets lost. And Luna’s a very quiet, receptive player. Somebody
says something to her, and she always listens and takes it and responds. That’s a wonderful
quality she has.
I felt my job was to kind of create a safe play-listening space at that moment, so that the owl and
the cat could relate. And then I’m always also interested in pulling in the science that they’ve
learned and what they know about the real world, about real owls and real cats. That’s what I was
doing in that play scenario. And just asking a few questions– do you need a nest? what do you
eat?– helps them imagine and move to their next action, play-action. And my goal is to have
them play together without needing an adult to be there.
She’s painting her strong, sharp talons. Luna, do you remember on the owl that you had, how
many talons did they have?
FEMALE SPEAKER: Three.
LISA KOLBECK: Three.
FEMALE SPEAKER: And I got five.
LISA KOLBECK: It has five. They look great. You look good. It looks like you need a branch to sit
on, because that’s what the talons do, don’t they? They hold on to things. Perching.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Hoo hoo.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Hi.
LISA KOLBECK: Hi.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Hi, cat. I’m owl from Little Bear.
LISA KOLBECK: You’re owl from Little Bear.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Mmm-hmm. You’re cat from Little Bear.
LISA KOLBECK: Luna, so you’re a boy owl, and this is a kitty cat. And what shall we play? What
do you guys want to play?
FEMALE SPEAKER: Owl and kitty cat.
LISA KOLBECK: Owl and kitty cat. What color ears to you want, Kitty? Pink ears. So Owl, here’s
my question. If you’re an owl and you’re an omnivore– do you remember what that means?– –do
you hunt little animals?
FEMALE SPEAKER: Uh-huh.
LISA KOLBECK: Uh-huh. And is that part of your game, hunting? Because that’s something that
owls do with their talons.
FEMALE SPEAKER: They try to get them.
LISA KOLBECK: They try to catch little animals.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Uh-huh, like house mouses.
LISA KOLBECK: Like house mouses.
FEMALE SPEAKER: And what else?
LISA KOLBECK: Think. What’s another small mammal?
FEMALE SPEAKER: A panda.
LISA KOLBECK: Really?
FEMALE SPEAKER: Well, a baby panda.
LISA KOLBECK: Well, a baby panda’s smaller.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Or a baby kitty, a kitten.
LISA KOLBECK: Probably, I’m guessing that Miley won’t want to play that game if you’re going to
FEMALE SPEAKER: OK. Then I will be a nice owl that doesn’t eat anything, just fruit.
LISA KOLBECK: Oh, kind of like a fruit bat, like Stellaluna but different. So do you want to go fly
away and fetch some fruits? OK, here’s your nest material. Pull it out.
FEMALE SPEAKER: It’s going to be ready in no time.
LISA KOLBECK: I think, Kitty, she might need your help. Pull it out, your nest-making material.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Owls are very strong.
LISA KOLBECK: No kidding.
FEMALE SPEAKER: And my wings can reach all the–
LISA KOLBECK: OK, can you form it into a nest? Make room for Kitty. Oh, there’s the nest.
It’s almost like children have a play being and a real being. And they’re both real, of course, but
children’s play being is like a metaphor for their real being. I’m always aware, being around
children, of how fast the adult world moves, and how noisy it is. And so one of the things I was
doing is I was trying to go slow. I was trying to be receptive to what the children were saying,
particularly Miley, and not jump in and take her words out of her mouth. Let them feel what the
flower of their idea was, letting it come out of them. And children need to feel that, to know who
they are, and to bring who they are into a school. They need to feel respected, and they need to
feel grounded in themselves and accepted for who they are, and heard.
I think I would like to say to people who are starting to work with children how important it is that
we not close children off with the walls of our assumptions. We leave ourselves open to surprises,
because children have so many surprises inside we can learn about it if we’re quiet enough to let
them come to us with it. And in terms of real practical advice, since children live in their
imaginations, anything that people can talk about that’s something imaginative is– Well, instead
of interrogating children, one can make it, say, an I statement. And then just see. You can tell by
children’s body language.
Often, if I say, I really like cats, a child will fall down on all fours and go, mew, mew, mew, and
you can tell that child likes cats. Children communicate, really, all different ways and use their
bodies so much that if you’re sensitive, you can really pick up cues about how to communicate.
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