Last week, some colleagues asked me for suggestions for developmentally appropriate classroom activities to feature on this blog for St. Patrick’s Day. My response was short and simple: I’d rather not.
My immediate reaction surprised some of my coworkers, especially those that don’t have hands-on experience working with young children. So rather than moving on and looking elsewhere for shamrocks and leprechauns, my curious and trusting colleagues wanted to understand why I reacted this way.
The answer is a little complicated – but I’ve tried to unpack it here:
1. I believe in an intentional, integrated curriculum and thoughtful planning.
I often push back when people ask for activities. In fact, I think some of the best activities that ever happened in my Head Start classroom were designed by or suggested by 4-year-olds. Far too often as the grown-ups in the room, we get caught up in the end product and forget about the concepts we’re teaching and building upon.
I had the benefit of spending the last few years providing professional development to Pre-K teachers and assistant teachers. They were such an incredible group of dedicated, passionate, caring educators and they came to each session eager to learn and grow. One of the most difficult shifts over the course of the year was from activity focused planning to objective focused planning. In objective focused planning, we look at activities as a vehicle for teaching as well as assessing rather than something to do or make. Here is how the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) defines curriculum:
“Curriculum is more than a collection of enjoyable activities. Curriculum is a complex idea containing multiple components, such as goals, content, pedagogy, or instructional practices. Curriculum is influenced by many factors, including society’s values, content standards, accountability systems, research findings, community expectations, culture and language, and individual children’s characteristics.” 
2. I believe that young children’s experiences should be relevant to their lives and respectful of their families.
The conversation on whether to celebrate- or even acknowledge- holidays in early childhood programs has been a hot topic since I started early childhood education coursework twenty years ago. When I worked as a teacher in a Head Start program in California, there was no conversation to be had- no holidays were celebrated, including birthdays.
Many years ago, I found guidance in an article from NAEYC. They have sense incorporated holidays into the important work they do in the area of anti-bias education.
“NAEYC believes that decisions about what holidays to celebrate are best made together by teachers, parents, and children. Families and staff are more comfortable when both have expressed their views and understand how a decision has been reached. The important thing for all to remember is that when planning holiday activities, the rules of good practice continue to apply: Are the activities meaningful to the children? Are their needs and interests being met? Is the activity a valuable use of children's time?”
How easy it can be to lose sight of the difference between what is meaningful to us, what is interesting to us, and what is valuable to us as compared to the young children and families with whom we work. In some early childhood settings, recognition and celebration of St. Patrick’s Day will be both relevant and appropriate. In these instances, consider all there is to explore that is related to the holiday and integrate all of those topics into lesson planning over a few weeks.
3. I believe that the ways in which teachers interact with children during an activity can matter more than the activity itself.
Lesson planning can be stressful and overwhelming. Staring at blank pages or empty boxes can often lead to the question: What are we going to do? There is pressure to plan activities that relate to the course of study, are engaging and challenging, and can be modified to meet the needs of all children. Sometimes the role of the teacher gets lost in that planning. Your words – and sometimes your silence!- has a huge impact on how and what children learn.
I have used the following article The Nature of Teacher Talk during Small Group Activities, from the wonderful NAEYC publication, Young Children in professional development sessions over the last few years. This article is a must read for anyone who works with children in small groups, a time that is so important and often overlooked in planning. Small group activities provide an opportunity for teaching, observing and assessing. Perhaps most importantly, the intimate nature of small groups can allow you to get to know the children in your care in a very different way. The authors conclude:
“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 development and learning.”
Thank you to my fantastic coworkers for believing that I had something important to say, though it might not have been what was planned. I am not anti-St. Patrick’s Day or any other holiday being recognized in early childhood programs when it is done thoughtfully, intentionally and with respect to all families and staff.
I wonder when I will reveal my Irish heritage to them.
Louisa Higgins is the coordinator for New York Works for Children (NYWFC), the state's integrated professional development system for the early childhood and school age workforce, administered by the PDI. Louisa began her career as a teacher in a Head Start program and went on to work as a mental health consultant in pre-k classrooms before transitioning into policy support and systems building. Louisa misses working with children but finds so much joy when she has the opportunity to work with adults through professional development – and spends a lot of time with her niece (pictured) and nephew.
 National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE). (2003).Joint position statement on early childhood curriculum, assessment, and program evaluation building an effective, accountable system in programs for children birth through age 8. Washington, DC: NAEYC, p. 6.
 Celebrating Holidays in Early Childhood Programs; https://oldweb.naeyc.org/ece/1996/18.asp
 The Nature of Teacher Talk during Small Group Activities. Rainer Dangel, Julie; Durden, Tonia Renee.
Young Children, v65 n1 p74-78, 80-81 Jan 2010 (http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=cyfsfacpub)