Monday, October 19, 2015

The Curious Child Brooklyn

Alison Racine, 2015

Just when you think Brooklynites had come up with every imaginable niche business out there, you stumble upon yet another great idea.

Alison Racine is a local nursery school teacher who runs a very creative after school program as well as a consultancy called The Curious Child. Her after school class, the Loose Parts Atelier, is based on the Reggio Emilia model of early childhood education while her consulting business helps parents strategize their way through behavioral rough patches. Think of her as the 3-year-old whisperer.

I had the pleasure of having tea with Alison last week and she and I have been discussing ways to prep the boys for the arrival of their little brother. She has a great energy and is clearly so present and engaged with the kids; I'd wholeheartedly recommend her services. It's definitely reassuring to speak with someone who sees preschoolers in action all the time.

She was kind enough to answer some of my questions. If you'd like to reach out to her yourself, her email address is:

Tell me a little bit about your background in early childhood education.
I have been a teacher in early childhood education for 5 years in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Previously I taught as a special education teacher in a kindergarten classroom for one year in Queens. My undergrad degree is in theatre and I find that I use this degree daily! Everyday is a performance to keep kiddos engaged. I also received my Masters in Childhood Education and Special Education from NYU.

What's the secret to wrangling 15 3 year olds? What tactics do nursery school teachers have at the ready that parents might not think of?
Consistency, expectations and love. If children have boundaries and have a high bar to reach, they will. If a low bar is set they will reach that as well. Children are so capable if given the right tools and expectations. Some families see expectations as limiting but instead they can be really freeing to a preschooler! Children are constantly trying to make sense of our world and when we help them find what are appropriate behaviors or actions through loving boundaries, children really thrive!

Do you think kids today are channeled into too many structured activities outside of school?
Yes and no. I think the best thing for parents to do when thinking about after school is to consider their individual child. If you know your child loves to be engaged in fine motor activities such as painting, drawing collage, etc. maybe an after school art class is the ticket. In contrast, if you know your little one has 1.21 gigawatts of energy after school, perhaps and activity that will support those gross motor needs such as a soccer class or swimming lessons are for your child. I also find daily value in unstructured time for kids as well. Children need to be able to have the space and time to create and entertain themselves. It’s important for children to make developmentally appropriate choices about what they want to do in their down time because you don’t want a child who later in life feels uneasy when the structured part of their day is over. It’s all about balance.

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When a child is acting out, what are your go to approaches to changing the behavior? 
I find that I am most successful when working on changing a behavior when I can work with the child and create rules about the behavior together. Sometimes we even make a contract that they sign by writing the first letter of their name or making a handprint out of paint to show ownership over the discussed rules. These rules are not implemented as if by an all-seeing overlord, it's a collaboration between the child and myself or perhaps a group. We also discuss is what happens if the rules are broken. These consequences are laid out a head of time so it is clear what happens next if the behavior arises again. Children can also collaborate with you about the consequences or cause and effect of what will happen if they break the rules that have been worked on together. Also, do what you say and say what you mean. This is a golden rule in eliminating behaviors. If you say, “Because X behavior happened, you can’t play with your truck for 10 minutes," mean it.

What drew you to Reggio Emilia? 
The Reggio philosophy is my dream philosophy! It is all about the children, which is what education, if done correctly, is supposed to be about! I love the opportunity to learn along side the children when project work emerges. I think it is wonderful that the philosophy allows me as a teacher to observe their play/work (which in the Reggio philosophy is one in the same) and create curriculum that supports their developmental needs. The projects, although they can be very exciting topics such as rock 'n roll, the artist Yayoi Kusama, or mermaids, don’t really matter, through any project, the skills such as social/emotional, cognitive, pre-literacy, pre-math, fine and gross motor skills, etc are woven in. The projects help children buy-in to the learning and through these projects children develop a life long desire and commitment to education.

Tell us a little bit about loose parts and your after school program?
My Loose Parts after school class takes place across the park from PS 110 in a church to which I belong. I do a pick-up program for children of PS 110 but all children are welcome. A brief description of the class is as follows!
An atelier is a space or environment that gives children access to a treasure trove of carefully selected recycled, found, and natural materials or “loose parts.” Loose parts are materials that have open-ended properties, meaning they have no predetermined use. When children are given materials and have the freedom to choose how a material should be used, unscripted, cooperative, and independent projects arise. Creativity and problem solving emerge when materials are given to children with no specified purpose. Whole group or small group child centered projects can develop as the children lead with innovation. We will read the award-winning book, “Not a Box,” which follows a a bunny with an imagination that proves a box is not just a box, but quite possibly a rocket ship, a hot air balloon, a robot, and more. Children will have the opportunity to explore their own Not a Box, developing their creation throughout the semester, and culminating in a stop-motion animated film designed and created by the children!
Currently we have been building a rocketship fort that has taken us to the dwarf planets Ceres, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake and Eris!

How does your consulting business work, and what are some of the issues parents have sought your help with? 
I like to work closely with families who are looking for some extra support. I have helped families create potty training plans, implement strategies for how to handle tantrums, assisted in creating strategies to create more structure in the home, guided families on how to prepare for a new baby, as well as helping to add elements of the Reggio philosophy in your home. I recognize that all families are as unique as their children and therefore a one-size-fits-all attitude won’t cut it. If you are looking for an inside track on how a teacher would approach and support your family needs, I’m your gal.

What's your stance on screen time?
I am under the school of thought that there is a time and a place for everything. Do I think that your child could be more enriched when choosing to do basically anything other than holding an iPad, yes. However, children (just like their Netflix loving grown-up counterparts) truly enjoy screen time. I think in moderation screen time is ok but I would suggest trying to watch what your child will view before they do. There are a lot of messages that are in cartoons that can sometimes have a very adult nature that you may not want your child learning about at their current age.

Any rainy day Reggio Emilia-inspired projects you can think of that parents can do at home?
Oh yes! You could make some no bake playdough and add spices or herbs. You could give you child masking tape and a piece of paper and see what fun ensues. You could also give your child loose parts (think recycling stuff you were going to put on the curb anyway) and make a sculpture or a new invention!

How many toys is too many? What should parents look for in a toy?
I think a child has too many toys when you can’t move in you apartment in fear of stepping on something sharp and plastic. In all seriousness, if it seems that your child has more toys than hairs on their sweet head, and it is starting to overwhelm you it might be time to reassess. I once read an article that asked the following questions:
1- Do they play with one toy for more than 15 minutes at a time (instead of switching from activity to activity)?
2- Do they complain about being bored?
3- Do they ask for more things (toys on commercials and toys in stores) more than once a day or every few days?
4- Do they act grateful for what they have?  Do they write thank you notes for their gifts?  Do they take care of what they have?
5- If a toy breaks, do they expect that they (or you) will buy a new one to replace it?

If you answered yes to three or more maybe it’s time to get your children involved in donating some of their toys to those that are less fortunate. Adding Loose Parts such as long tubes, bottle caps, scraps of fabric, etc are a great way to add to the “toys” of your household because they demand that your children use their imaginations!

When I look to buy a toy I like to have the follow criteria met:

-Can a toys be used in several ways? (i.e. can the child take it apart, put it back together, add to it, etc.)
-Will it spark imagination?
-Will this help support problem solving?
-Does is correlate with any real-life stuff? i.e. animals, cooking utensils, etc.
-Will this help make the child more active or focused?

If any of the answers are yes, it’s usually a good buy!

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