The educator and entrepreneur on making learning fun and what children can teach us.
You’ve recently won a Parents’ Choice Award for your website “Playful Learning.” Could you give a brief example of what parents or educators might see on your site?
Playful Learning is a homegrown website that was created to share useful and interesting information with families regarding the growth and development of their children. I try to provide parents with simple ways that they can engage with their children and enhance their education. On the website you will find: a variety of easy-to-do learning experiences, resources for both parents and children, and homemade videos that families can watch together.
When did you start the site, and what would you say was your primary purpose in starting the website?
The transition from working full-time to being a stay-at-home mom was more challenging for me than I had anticipated. My work had become a big part of my identity, and I slowly needed to redefine for myself who I was. I remember a specific moment as I was unpacking all of my curriculum books that I had brought home from my office—I realized that my passion for educating children did not have to end. I set out to adapt my favorite classroom lessons into simple, playful learning experiences that I could share with my children. I started a blog to document our experiences together, which evolved over time into what is now Playful Learning. Through this process I rediscovered my voice and realized that I could shift my focus from the development of schools to nurturing my own family and, in turn, help other families to do the same. Starting Playful Learning has turned out to be an incredible journey for me and my family—one that led to a book deal with Shambhala Publications (coming in the summer of 2011) and the Parents’ Choice Award.
You’re opening up an educational toy store and workshop space in Sag Harbor. Can you give examples of what sort of toys you will be carrying and how you hope to use the workshop space?
My wish for Playful Learning (the space) is that it becomes a valuable resource for children and parents—as well as a place they like to spend time at. We will carry all of our favorite children’s books, games, and toys, as well as art supplies, writing materials, and scientific tools. The goal is to provide a good match between a child’s stage of development and current interests and the products that parents purchase. It will be a place where families can purchase items that they feel good about—products and toys that enhance children’s explorations, interests, imaginations, and passions.
Playful Learning will offer hands-on workshops for children in areas such as: social skills, geography, writing, and science. We would also like to have a “community classroom,” where professionals living on the East End can offer workshops to children and parents in their areas of expertise. We have so many incredible people living here; it would be great to offer an outlet where they can share their wisdom, experience, and insight with future generations.
You’re a mother of two young children, as well as a teacher. How has having children impacted or changed your approach to teaching? In other words, what have your children taught you?
The most profound lesson I have learned from my own children is that every child takes in the world and learns in her or his own unique way. My daughters have completely different ways of approaching new information and experiences. My oldest needs to understand the larger picture or gestalt before she is ready to learn about the specifics of any given topic. My youngest daughter needs to understand the details and how they all fit together before she can see the big picture. These differences have big implications for how they learn to read, solve math problems, approach science, and so on.
Before having children and even while my daughters were still young, I was convinced that if we could create the right educational model, we could change the world. Although I have had opportunities to work for some extraordinary schools, the hard lesson that I learned is that there is no “one size fits all” solution to education. Every community has its own culture, and every child has his or her own learning style that needs to be taken into consideration. What works beautifully for one community or child may not work at all for another. Ultimately, it is the parents, teachers, and local educators who know their community and children best and they are the people that should be making choices about which methods, frameworks, and philosophies work best for each child.
How is being a parent different from being a teacher?
When I left work to stay at home with my two daughters (then ages three and five), I naturally wanted to provide them with experiences at home to support their education. I soon learned that moving from full-time educator to full-time mom wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. When children go to school, they have, for the most part, accepted the fact that they are there to engage in the lessons that their teachers present. Not true for children at home, especially when it comes to any type of “lesson” the parent may be trying to share. Needless to say, my first few attempts at “making learning fun” failed miserably.
I learned quickly to follow my daughters’ lead and to take advantage of the “teachable moments” as they appeared. What I have realized and come to appreciate is that as parents, we have the benefit of taking the long-term view with our children. We get to plant seeds in their hearts and minds that may not begin to blossom for weeks, months, or even years. The extraordinary thing is that the moment a seed begins to sprout within them, we can be there to help them nurture and expand upon their interests.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given about teaching young children?
A great teacher once told me that in order to start teaching young children a new topic, we simply needed to be a few children’s books ahead of our students. This is my favorite advice because it dispels any ideas that we need to be experts when engaging in playful learning experiences with our children. I like to call this phenomenon the “one-step-ahead” parent. I have been known to read a book aloud on a topic on the way to a museum or while at the beach—talk about one step ahead! Yet that little bit of preparation makes the difference between an experience and a learning experience and helps to foster for more meaningful connections.