Welcome To A Seat At The Table

 Many years ago, I was introduced to the importance of a being invited to a seat at the table. A simple gesture of sharing food and camaraderie creates unity and friendships. Food may unite us at a table to fill our stomachs but it is the relationships that form at that table that fill our lives.  The value of a piece of furniture to capture inclusion, sharing, celebrations, and building of community, lies in a table. When you are provided a seat at the table, it represents an opportunity to be heard and to make a difference.  Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a new table, to meet new friends, eat new foods and rekindle my passion for learning. Along with forty-nine other early childhood educators, we spent a weekend of sharing, celebrating and feasting on, among other things, Philadelphia Cheese Steak! Last weekend was the annual Terri Lynne Lokoff Teacher Awards.  Ironically, from this celebration, a new table of learning and sharing will make its way into the Ginkgo Tree Nature School. 

  In August 1987, Fred and Kay Lokoff founded the Terri Lynne Lokoff Child Care Foundationto honor the memory of their daughter Terri, who died tragically in an auto accident.The Terri Lynne Lokoff Foundationis the advocate in our country for supporting and elevating the status of early child care professionals. Each year, this Foundation is the only organization in the countryto honor child care educators nationally for their valuable work and innovative thinking at the Terri Lynne Lokoff Children’s TYLENOL®, Children’s ZYRTEC® National Child Care Teacher Awards.The Lokoff foundation is dedicated to making America better by improving early care and education. Their focus is to improve the quality of programs that care for and education children from birth to five. Therein, lies the beauty of this award and our tables. 

  Childcare educators are rarely recognized for their importance on brain development, social skills and emotional competencies that they share with our earliest learners.  The salaries are low, the hours are long, turnover is high and there are rarely benefits included in their contracts. Recently, however, early care educators are being invited to the table of “education.” The landscape of early childhood education is changing.  It isn’t pretty, it won’t happen quickly, but it is happening because of research, changing demographics, and policymakers.  It is changing because foundations and families like the Lokoff’s believe in our youngest learners and their caregivers. The Lokoff Foundation recognizes the importance of those first five years and the importance of the education that these children spend their days learning. 

    A celebration of that learning and those teachers is held annually as the Lokoff Foundation invites us to their table, to honor early childhood educators who are not often recognized and invited to the “adult” table of education. This award gives fifty teachers $500 for a classroom project and $500 for the teacher’s personal use, along with the trip to Philadelphia to be honored for their passion, their time and their sacrifices. Many of these teachers that were honored would not qualify for funds in other grant-supported opportunities. Family child care programs, non-profits, for profit, and small private schools are rarely considered to apply for funding from sources that only recognize traditional ”pre-school” classrooms for these opportunities. Recognition in early care is unheard of.  If you missed it in the second paragraph, let me share it with you again.  The Lokoff Foundation is the ONLY organization in the country to honor early childcare teachers nationally for their work.  They invite us to have a seat at the table. All of us, regardless of school setting, we are invited to the table of education. Yes, the landscape is changing! The crawling movement is beginning to steady itself for the walk forward to a day we see federally funded early childhood education and care.  Until that day arrives, we will be forever grateful for those who do recognize the hard work and importance of early care education.  Thank you to our families that trust us with their most valuable possession, our mentors, the researchers, policy makers and the Lokoff Foundation. 

            The Ginkgo Tree classroom enhancement project is titled, Under Construction: Blocks, Blueprints and Brain Development. We asked for an outdoor block area.  As you know, we are more than a bit block crazy over here. We build all over our outdoor classroom, with sticks, rocks, loose parts orwhatever we can find.  Finding an outdoor unit block was like striking gold!  Unit blocks work best on flat surfaces, so we requested the Community Plaything’s Outlast Tableas the centerpiece of our Block Center.  We need this table for building blocks, but also for building community, trust and friendship, which are all very important skills to master before kindergarten.  There is a term in early childhood classrooms called a Play Buzz.  A Play Buzz is that moment during play when all is good, all is right, all needs are met and all the children are learning. You will often know it by the silence in the classroom.  I can tell you that the majority of our play buzzes happen as a group during block play. Blocks are the magic. Our goal was to give the magic a permanent home in our Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. 

            We have a Community Playthings Outlast Table that we love dearly. We use it almost daily for our meals, artwork, kinetic sand play, magnets and other learning activities.  I tend to over research everything and I looked at other outdoor tables. Did I really need another table, exactly like the one we have? After hours of research, I decided we did! It’s hard to find a table where everyone can be invited to have a seat at the table! Which is just as important for inclusion and for building skills much deeper than simple block building. Having a seat at that table gives children power to make decisions and influence on how a project progresses. It allows the child to be heard and to make a difference. 

            Last week I had to ask my students to move block play so we could use the table for lunch. I knew the request was not going to go over well and it didn’t.  I get it.  It was a project in progress. It was a play buzz. They weren’t finished, even though the clock said it was well past our lunchtime.  So, we ate on a blanket on the lawn.  Glasses of milk and our lawn don’t get along so well.  We needed a block table. We have had our table for a number of years and it is as sturdy as it was the day it arrived. It sits outdoors all winter long, and this Illinois winter was crazy cold and crazy long, and our table welcomed us back when the yard was drenched with mud, and too deep for play!  There are so many things we love about all the Community Playthings products that we own, (and we have a lot!) but it is the table that joins us. It is the table that brings us together for learning and sharing, feasting and celebrating. It may just be a major piece of our foundation of learning. 

            Our goal for creating this space is to engage the children with a rich learning environment that encourages building, creating and problem solving. The collaboration that happens with building blocks is the rich, engaging and relationship building environment that educators crave. The same can be said about for The Lokoff Teaching Award.  The collaboration that happened last weekend was rich, engaging and an environment that built relationships that changed our lives. Thank you to the Lokoff Foundation for inviting all of us to a seat at your table! 

Our new table, benches and blocks! LOVE!

Our new table, benches and blocks! LOVE!



Early Childhood Education is…education. It just looks like play!  



















Setting the Stage for Outdoor Math Experiences

shell sun.png

                 As I look around me I see busy, happy children.  Avery, Linnea and Anderson are busy seeing how high they can stack their rocks.  Maya and Noa are near the sandbox creating a tea party for fairies, while Rowan and Parker are creating homes and meals for the squirrels over in the rain garden.  It is calm. Everyone is happy and learning. We call this a play buzz.         

         When I stop and take a closer look, I recognize that not only is everyone happily playing, they are all working on math. M A T H!  Did you know that nearly half of all children’s play involves math?  (Seo and Ginsburg 2004). The latest research also shows that early math skills are a better predictor of academic success than early reading skills! So here at the Gingko Tree, we are creating even more opportunities to introduce math concepts and problem solving through play. As a family childcare with a Nature Explore Certified Outdoor Classroom, we spend a great majority of our time outdoors.

         The environment IS our curriculum.  When we add natural elements to their areas of play, it leads to playing in math rich environments while creating and problem solving in very deep and complex ways. As more and more classrooms and families are returning to the outdoors, simply giving our children the gift of time will lead them to mathematical play. It’s comes very easily to them without worksheets or number cards or dreaded memorization that may not be developmentally correct for where their brain development is at this time. As spring arrives, take this opportunity to create math rich environments in your own backyard or play space. The only thing you can do wrong, is not to do it! Bringing math into your outdoor or indoor environment is easy and even better it’s often free! In outdoor classrooms or family backyards, educators and parents are learning the beauty of loose parts in children’s learning and play experiences.


 Architect Simon Nicholson, first proposed loose parts back in the 1970’s.  Nicholson believed that we are all creative and that loose parts in our environment increases and empowers that freedom to create. Loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways. They are materials with no specific set of directions that can be used alone or combined with other materials. (Kabel 2010)


         We like to think of loose parts as shells, rocks, sticks, acorns, feathers, pinecones, flowers, flower petals, material, water, sand, dirt, moss, leaves, bark, rocks, pebbles, pine needles, seeds and else whatever may be native to your region. We also use blocks, people, animals and other manipulatives. Loose parts can range from dramatic play props to play cars, pots, pans, and pouring devices. If your environment doesn’t already contain those things, bring it in. If you have those, take them out!  We rarely take walks without bringing home all kinds of the loose parts or “treasures” listed above. Use what you have. If it’s little, and your child hoards them in containers just to carry around and create “things” with; your child is playing with loose parts! Take advantage of what you have around you.  Those are your tools for setting up a math rich environment. Let’s get started!

         Storage is an important part of loose parts because it gives a sense of order and allows children access and knowing where those materials are. Indoors, I try to keep our natural loose parts materials in wood bowls, sturdy baskets, or other natural containers that look nice and add calmness to my environment.  Outdoors we have used galvanized buckets, plant containers, crates, or any container source that we have nearby. This summer, I discovered stainless steel colanders. These are my favorite container to date! They allow you to leave outdoors and the rain or snow can drain straight through!  Use your imagination. I can tell you from practice, the happier the container makes you, the more relaxed you will be with loose parts. Also, be aware that buckets and baskets may get dumped from what you are “storing” to become a piece of their loose parts puzzle.  That’s a struggle for me.  Usually, it means I need more containers for them to carry around or create with. The beauty of loose parts is that they can be moved, and so the child has power to create new adventures every day. Storage and carrying pieces are an important piece of the puzzle.

I recycled our spring planting containers.  These worked out well, and were free! Win, win! We have these next to our sandbox.  They are full of rocks, shells, bark, and birch branches today.  We change our materials often.  By “locking” these in under the fence, it kept them permanently placed without getting dumped.

         As more and more of your outdoors space becomes filled with natural materials and less plastic and branded play toys, you will see your child’s play change. It will become deeper, more focused and more creative. Trust me.  It’s amazing.

         Now we can bring in the materials!  Do you have rocks nearby? Take a walk.  You will find some. We have found some very pretty river rocks at the Dollar Tree. If you take a vacation, the rocks in different regions are often different colors, shapes and textures. Add those to your collection. We love rocks and they often come home in pockets and backpacks.               

rock feet.png

       We play with rocks a lot. They line them up; they stack them up. They sort them by color, size, and texture. All of that is early math. They use them for food and phones, and building.  They rarely throw them.  Honest.  Call them your math rocks.  There are throwing rocks and math rocks, and we only have math rocks. 


        Find some shells. Goodwill, Salvation Army and garage sales have been our gold mines for shells.  Any found on your own are even better, because there is a story and memory behind it.


Bring in small tree branch slices, driftwood, bark or small twigs.  We’ve used all of them.  Pinecones, acorns, buckeyes will all add new discoveries and wonder to your math center. Children are full of math vocabulary, more or less, bigger or smaller, fair or equal. Loose parts will add this vocabulary into your child’s world on a daily basis.


It’s a squirrel trap.  You already knew that, didn’t you? It’s also logical thinking, creative problem solving, measuring length and size, comparing and estimation.  Whew! That’s a lot of math in a squirrel trap built by a group of kids under the age of 5. This is where that gift of long, uninterrupted time is so important. Fifteen-minute recesses are not enough.  Give them time.

If you want to learn more or see great examples of loose parts, I highly recommend looking at Dr. Carla Gull’s Facebook page, Loose Parts Play. She has great ideas on there, and contributors from around the world!


          We love, love our mancala boards. We use them with shells, stones, seeds, and pretty glitter marbled stones. You could use egg cartons or ice cube trays, also. These are perfect for one to one correlation for teaching numeration. You won’t need to mention that of course. They will play with them where they are developmentally at that moment. It will all come. You are setting the stage to make it come so very easily, through play.

parker geoboard.png

We also use our geo-boards a lot.  Besides all the geometric shape experiences they create, this also works the small muscle development and fine motor skills they will need when it is time to start writing. It may not look like math to them, but we know better!  


 We didn’t discuss patterns.  Four-year-old Rowan thought it looked pretty.


This is a “family” of leaves.  It started innocently enough with a Daddy leaf and the play took off from there.  Children are exposed to math vocabulary anytime size or comparison is involved. All these experiences are building blocks for early math development.


When four-year-old Gabe, discovered that the oak leaf was torn like the number three, it set off a flurry of creating numbers. We captured it on clear contact paper to admire and share with parents. 

Math is all around us.  Creating a math environment into your children’s play assures your child of future academic success. Including loose parts into your play area will create a learning environment that your child will be drawn to effortlessly.  They will be learning. If you thought you needed worksheets or flashcards or screen time to prepare your child for school, I hope you will give this a try. You will be excited about the learning your child is experiencing. You will see it. They won’t.  They will think they are playing.  Which is just what we want our children to be doing.  If you build it, they will learn. It will be fun for both of you! Go play!


The Pieces of the Puzzle

The Pieces of the Puzzle

Each year it seems, it is time to send a group off to kindergarten and re-evaluate just how well our program is working.  This year is no different.  It is with a sad heart that we send two more off to kindergarten and remember how very lucky we are that they shared their childhood days with us and nature.  

Reflection on an Outdoor Classroom

 There in my doorway, stood a familiar face. The face of a parent whose third chid had graduated from our program last May.  She was quick to notice the new pergola, new bike path and walkways, and the addition to the music area. That wasn't why she was here. She was here to share. She was here to share how well her child had done in kindergarten this past year. She believes in our outdoor program and the importance of giving children time to explore and learn in nature. She knows the importance of learning social skills and self-regulation. She understands the gift of time, and taking risks and building friendships, and watching a worm squirm in your hand. Her children have been in our home for twelve years, and even she laughed at her own comments. 

"How many times have you had to explain to parents that they will learn when they are ready to learn and that we can't rush it?" she asked. "I know and believe in your curriculum but why am I always so surprised when the test scores confirm it?"

Memories fill my head of the little boy who didn't care about letters or numbers or learning to read. This was the child that could dig for hours, walk on stumps with his eyes closed, ride bikes backwards, listen to books for half a day, and lead his friends on adventures in lands far, far away. His kindness and caring for friends far exceeded how many alphabet letters he had memorized. 

The test scores confirm for all of us that social and emotional competence is more important than learning the alphabet. Children will learn when their brain tells them to and when it is relevant to their lives. Knowledge will come when it is meaningful to the child. Yet even I caught myself glowing inside; even I felt confirmation once more that outdoor learning brings success in life. Giving children the foundations of social skills, problem solving, trust, and risk taking in an outdoor classroom is a very strong foundation. The social skills will bring new friendships and confidence in asking questions and taking turns and sharing. They will be kind and caring with new friends just as they learned to care for worms and plants emerging from the ground each spring. The problem solving skills they developed in the outdoors will be carried over to math and reasoning skills in science. Learning to read, is a risk. Children in outdoor classrooms take risks on a daily basis. 

When we give our children the gifts of time and nature and caring adults, the test scores will take care of themselves. Once more, Under the Gingko Tree passed the test. Thank you to all my alumni families who took the risk of a non-traditional preschool program. Thank you for believing in yourself and your child, and in our program. Thank you for returning to share your success stories with me. The Tree House door is always open. Come often.


Wow! It actually happened! Back in grad school, we were encouraged to try to get an article published. It was actually an assignment to write an article. As exhausted as we all were, no one had much desire to add one more thing to our plates. And so for most of us, the thought was pushed to the side, if not off, our plates. 

I recently got a call asking if I would write a piece for Exchange, The Early Childhood Leaders Magazine. It would be part of the World Forum Foundations, Wonder Newsletter.  I wrote a short article about how we give children time to explore in our outdoor classroom. I sent it off, and like most things in our busy lives, considered it one more thing off my plate.  In May, Exchange Magazine arrived in my mailbox  It has been sitting in my "to read" pile since then.  Unaware that my article had actually made it ANYWHERE, I was saving it because the cover was abount Emerging Leaders.  Shockingly, I just discovered my article was actually published! WOW!  Who knew?  I don't even mind that it was on the very last page of the whole magazine!  So, Dr. Anneliese Payne, this one is for you! 


What We Wear in Winter

This guest blog article was first published on Nature Explore's Community Page in January of 2012

Car Mittens vs. Snow Mittens

by Diann Gano, Nature Explore Certified Classroom Owner: Under The Ginkgo Tree

What do Nature Explore Classrooms do in the winter months? We go outside, of course! As great as the winter has been to us this year, it finally got even better. It SNOWED! As a guest blogger, I thought this would be a great chance for us to share how we approach this season with our students and their parents.

A few years ago, while carrying one of those huge, 18-gallon tubs full of Legos into my classroom, it hit me; Why do I fill my classroom with all these materials, but I don’t have the supplies we need when we go outdoors in the winter? And so my collection began. Our families have been great about handing down snowsuits, mittens and boots that no longer fit their children. I also grab that kind of stuff at any clearance sale that I run into. If we are going to be an outdoor classroom, we need the supplies to make it happen. If we supply the stumps, loose materials and make the time to be outdoors then we also need to have the appropriate clothing to make that happen.

We call bundling up, “Suit Up and Boot Up”! After making sure everyone has gone to the bathroom, the process begins. I am often asked, “How long does it take you to get everyone ready?” Who cares? Do we have something better to do? No! And it is an important process that teaches more than what could be learned in traditional circle time. For example, we learn sequencing and self-independence. A few years ago, I had a two year old that could “Suit Up and Boot Up” faster than her older counterparts. She was a pro! With so many children attempting to get ready at the same time, children learn to independently get ready on their own. Our children love to play in the snow, and they know that getting ready is part of the process.

We have also found that some outwear just works better than others, which brings me to my newly created vocabulary word. Have you heard about Snow Mittens vs. Car Mittens? Fleece and wool mittens are good for car rides but if you are going to sled, build snowmen, eat icicles or just PLAY in the snow you need SNOW mittens. Any nylon glove or mitten will work, but really great ones go up to your wrists. They allow you to play for longer periods of time and stay warm in the winter temperatures. I knew my vocabulary word was catching on when a four year old sadly walked in the door and announced, “I could only find my car mittens today.” Poor kid. Luckily, we have many extra pairs of snow mittens. I am on a campaign of sorts, and Nature Explore teachers are the perfect group to help me out.  Use my new vocabulary word (snow mittens) and be prepared for lots of learning and sensational snow play