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Nurtured Noggins: Adventures in Early Learning Making, Tinkering, and STEM with Ann McKitrick

In today's podcast episode, we visit with parenting expert, coach, blogger, and podcast host of Parenting in the First Three Years, Ann McKitrick. Ann is an early childhood specialist. She has done training and coaching for schools. She's done it for families, and her podcast is a delight. If you haven't started following it, please head over to and check out all that Ann has to offer.

Tell us about your adventures in learning. How did you become an early childhood expert?

[00:51] Dr. Diane: Could you talk a little bit about your adventures in learning? I assume you didn't just wake up one day and become a parenting expert. How did that happen?

[01:06] Ann: I always just kind of did what I like to do, and I grew up in a family that really loved and honored babies and young children. My mom was in early childhood herself. I just grew up with a lot of conversations around children. And so when I went to college, I just took classes that I thought were interesting. Most of them were in child development, and it just ended up being a degree that was centered on not just early learning, but also lifespan learning. My degree is human development and family studies, a secondary education teaching certificate. So I started out teaching high school, but I also was teaching child development in high school. So I really have had the gamut of teaching because another big pocket of my career was being an infant teacher. And I always worked in college and university settings in their lab school programs, where we were working with the college students and student families as well as the children. And so that's kind of where it all started. I just have always loved being around kids. I always prefer their company over most everybody else and then talking to the grown ups of those kids about those kids.

[02:24] Dr. Diane: And you taught for years, and you've recently launched Nurtured Noggins and the podcast. How long have you been doing that?

[02:32] Ann: Nurtured Noggins was born about seven years ago with my daughter, and then the podcast began about a year ago. I'm one year in.

[02:43] Dr. Diane: Who's your audience with Nurtured Noggins and also with the podcast, who are you reaching out to?

[02:50] Ann: I am trying to reach out to pregnant parents, those who are thinking about having a baby, and then the ones who are right there in the thick of those first three years of life. I love children of all ages, and I think that there's a lot of focus on preschool and forward, but when you look out there in the world, there’s not a lot of people that are really honing in on these first few years which are so important. And that's really when parents well, that's when they become parents, is when they have a baby. And it's a whole new career. It's a whole new thing you have to figure out. And so I love walking people through that.

What's the connection between curiosity and learning?

[03:35] Dr. Diane: So what would you say is the connection between curiosity and learning in that age and beyond?

[03:42] Ann: I think that children are, such a cliche, but they're just naturally curious. You'll see your baby put everything in their mouth. I used to work with this lady and she said, “Ann, if you put your tongue on the sidewalk, wouldn't you kind of know what it tastes like before you do that?” And she would go through all these things, grass. Don't you really know what grass tastes like? And her theory was that when you're in this oral stage of development in these first 18-20 months of life, that you are storing in your brain what everything tastes like because you put everything in your mouth.

But I just think that everything children do leads to learning and it's how they manage themselves in the world. And I think that what happens oftentimes when they get to a certain point and it's probably different in different places, it just begins to be shushed a little bit and the curiosity becomes disruptive almost, and we have to look at it with a different mindset in order to encourage it.

[04:53] Dr. Diane: How do we as families and also as educators, how do we refrain from that kind of deficit thinking where we shush it and rather embrace it for its strength and encourage that level of curiosity and wonder?

[05:09] Ann: I think it requires a couple of different things. I think it's really important for all of us who hang around with kids, whether we're teachers or parents, to keep top of mind where they are developmentally and understand that everything that they do, they're doing because they are in this particular stage of development, whatever it is. If you have that in mind, that that's where they are developmentally. And then you also have in mind that children are messmakers and it's okay. And children are curious and that is great. And everything that they're doing, it looks like a big hassle to me to clean up later. But actually this is very, very good. And there are good things coming out of this. And one of the good things that can come out of it is that we can learn how to pick up together and put it back, clean up too. And it's just a matter of having that mindset.

[06:12] Dr. Diane: That makes a lot of sense to me. And as you were talking, I was sort of thinking about incidental learning that happens throughout the day, that you were just sort of segueing into that, that you look at the mess and you find all of these other things that are coming out of it. How as adults do we build in those opportunities for incidental learning or embrace them? Maybe we're following the child's lead.

[06:35] Ann: Right. A couple of stories come to mind just of my own children, things that happened in our house. At this time of year where I live in Texas, we have these little onion flowers growing in the grass and it's very, like when somebody mows their yard, you can just smell onions so strong it sometimes makes your eyes burn. It's so strong. But I remember my daughter one time picked a bunch of those little onion flowers and she washed them and she made onion soup and then tasted it to see what it would taste like. And so that's an example of just an incidental thing that happened.

Another one that I can think of is one time we were having this conversation about chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. I wonder if that really is chocolate chip cookie dough inside there. Could you make cookies out of that dough? And so we just sat around as a family with a gallon of that ice cream and we ate the ice cream, but we just spit out the cookie and made our own little bowl of cookie dough and then baked them to see if that was actually going to make a good cookie or not. Sure enough, it doesn't. Just so you know, you don't have to try our experiment. But those are just two examples of ways that you can just when the “I wonder what” question comes to follow through with it and allow that to happen. Because now that is some good learning because you're going to remember that. And our kids are all grown and gone, but I bet you a dollar they would still remember that afternoon when we did that ice cream thing.

[08:18] Dr. Diane: Oh, absolutely. And sometimes the child led or the child questions lead to the richest experiences.

[08:24] Ann: Right. I mean, there's all kinds of stories of children inventing wonderful things.

Two children sail in a magic boat made out of a laundry basket and a posterboard sail attached to paper towel tubes.
Sailing to far off places in a magic boat

[08:31] Dr. Diane: Absolutely. And I think back to the games that my own girls played. And one in particular, there was a laundry basket, one of those big wicker laundry baskets. And for the longest time that was a boat and it was a boat for exploration. And my daughter got some poster board and in that beginning writing that a toddler preschooler does -- her name was on it, mom, her sister's name -- and we taped it to a toilet paper tube, a bunch of toilet paper tubes. And she sailed in that thing every afternoon for a week. And we joined her on her voyages and each day she led us somewhere different and we sat and played. And I think that that idea of being able to find the time to sit and play and to use the found objects around the house is so huge.

[09:20] Ann: Yeah. And it's also so good for the brain to have long, extended time of that pretend or fantasy thinking. I was talking with a mom just last week in a parent coaching session, and she said, I just feel so bad because I let him dig a hole for 45 minutes. I just feel like that was wasted time. And I just thought and we talked about, no, that's not wasted time. I mean, gosh, there's so many great things happening in that little exercise of digging a hole. But one of the best things is that it's good, long, attention building activity as opposed to something electronic where it's changing every split second and the brain is making all those switches.

What do maker spaces look like for early learners?

[11:24] Dr. Diane: So one of the things I know that you're working with are maker spaces, and I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit about what a maker space is and what ages you think they're best suited for.

[11:38] Ann: Maker space is just an area that is set aside with loose parts. I call it like a new name for what we've always had, which is junk. You just save stuff and put it in a place where children have access to it and can do things with it.

And there's very formalized maker spaces at the Children's Museum in Minneapolis. They have a wonderful gigantic maker space with all these different places. And then with early childhood teachers, I train them to create a maker space in their classrooms with organized junk and all the materials and supports they need to move on their curiosity and build things.

But in the home, I think that you could just have a bin of things with containers in it. We are in a beautiful time and space right now where we all have so many boxes because we have so many deliveries. And inside the boxes, there are some very interesting pieces. There's all the foam stuff and all the other things that they use to keep food, especially like if you have food delivered to your home, all that styrofoam and all those big, gigantic eggshell type materials, all of those things are great for constructing things. And then add just all the little gadgets and all the little things, and you have created a way for your children to make things just like your daughter's boat. It was just stuff around the house. But she created this wonderful pretend journey for herself through that. That's what a maker space is, basically. It's just a space that is set aside, that can get messy and is easily cleaned up and organized in a way that a child can manage that. And it's undisturbed in a classroom. You might even put that caution tape around it and say in progress, don't clean this up. But at home, if you could find a space in your home where you could allow that to happen, that would be really cool.

[14:05] Dr. Diane: And as you're talking, I'm sort of remembering back to my own running a preschool days as well as my parenting days. And I was thinking about connections between literacy and making, that there are so many ways that we can build those connections. One that comes to mind is there was a poem by Jack Prelutsky, I Made a Mechanical Dragon. And it starts, I still remember the poem, at least parts of it: “I made a mechanical dragon out of boxes and papers and strings. Its tops were made out of buttons…” And it goes on about the wings and all the junk that makes this dragon. And I remember reading that both at home and at the preschool and the incredible dragons that came organically from just sharing that language and that poem. In the preschool, they used the block corner and they used the blocks to construct these dragons. At home, I didn't realize that I had a maker space, but again, my girls took the junk, the egg cartons and the baby jar lids, the metal jar lids and buttons and glue and yeah, we had a lot of dragons in my house for a long time. But I think it's something that if a teacher can sort of think outside the box, there are ways that you can allow it to happen organically and ways that you can scaffold and guide play as well by providing some inspiration.

[15:30] Ann: Yeah. I mean, you could take really so many books and find something in that book, a problem that they're trying to solve, or a character who has a specific interest or something like that, and you could go with that idea and let them be the problem solvers.

What's the difference between tinkering and playing?

[15:58] Ann: Tinkering, by definition, would be that you just are experimenting, you're trying things, you're trying to figure it out. And as you are tinkering, let's say that you've got a bunch of nuts and bolts. And you discover that if you put the bolt on halfway, that you can screw another one on the other side and attach two screws together in that way, or a simpler one for young children might be a bunch of PVC pipes and connectors. All of the things that you can make just with a PVC pipe is so, so fun. And tinkering with PVC pipe might look like having different size pipes. And at the Home Depot or whatever your store is that you can go buy that stuff, they can cut it in different lengths for you. And then you can get the little connectors. It's probably one of the least expensive big construction toys you can get, it’s just at the lumber store. But then once they create the house or the box or the triangle or the dome or whatever with some sheets and some signage and some markers and some books and some pillows and some flashlights and some battery operated things, they could just go on and on and on with all of the different options for that.

[17:33] Dr. Diane: Tinkering sort of evolves into play, right?

[17:37] Ann: Yeah, it does.

[17:39] Dr. Diane: Very cool. So do you have some favorite examples of making and playing and tinkering in terms of maker space and young children that you've used or you've encouraged parents to set up? You just referenced forts and the PVC pipe. I'm wondering, are there other ideas?

[17:56] Ann: Yeah, I think something that most children really love to do is make boats. And you can make boats out of most anything. And that can be a kitchen sink activity. It can be a bathtub activity, it can be an outdoor tub of water on the sidewalk activity. But anywhere you have a little bit of water and some materials, you can just try. Of course, you could start with sink float. That might be “I wonder what will float. I wonder what will sink. And then I wonder if we could make this thing that sinks float by building a boat to hold it.”

And then one thing that I do in my trainings with early childhood teachers is we just use aluminum foil and a tub of water and pennies and they build a boat out of the foil and they estimate how many pennies the boat will hold before it sinks. Well, that's just a fun, simple activity. It doesn't take any materials that you don't already have, probably. But it's a great learning experience because the thicker the foil, the more sturdy the boat, the more pennies it holds. That's a fun one.

Another really great thing, I think, that not all children, but certain children will be very interested in, taking things apart and looking inside. And so anytime you have something that breaks, just take it apart and look and see what's inside it. I think it's really interesting to look inside a phone. If you've ever taken the glass off and looked inside there, that's fascinating. Of course, that would be for a little bit older child. But anything that breaks, any kitchen appliance, just sit with them and take it apart and see if they can figure out what is it that makes this mechanism move. Cut the cord off first though. No power.

What are some good picture books to connect to making and tinkering?

[19:44] Dr. Diane: Well, as you were talking, I was thinking about boxes and parts and sort of the different things you can construct just with a box. And I was also thinking about some different books that I think tie really well in. There's a lovely book called Boxitects, which is about two little girls who each have their own distinct vision for how to build with the boxes in a maker space. And they're thrust together on a team and it doesn't go well, and everything falls apart. And they've got five minutes left in the competition and they figure out that they have a little bit from each that they can use together if they cooperate and collaborate. And so they're able to salvage it. They don't win the competition, but they learn something more important, which is for the next time. How do we work better together? So I was thinking that book would be a lovely one. Then of course, the Rosie Revere Engineer, Iggy Peck Architect, that whole series of books that I think would be really fun in a making setting as well. Ashley Spires is great. She's done The Most Magnificent Thing, which is all about the frustration that comes with tinkering and building. But she's also got a whole new series called Fairy Science which is designed for that preschool and early childhood crowd and it takes fairies but it adds the scientific process in. And there's one where she's dealing with solids, liquids and gases and is sort of building on that series. I was thinking you could use those to sort of launch some build challenges and investigations as well.

[21:16] Ann: Yeah, that's a great idea.

What kind of household items make a good maker space for young learners?

[21:19] Dr. Diane: So what are some common household items? You sort of referenced this in terms of all the boxes and the deliveries. If you were making a list for parents, what would you want them to have around the house for their children to be able to play, to support their curiosity and be able to create through tinkering?

[21:36] Ann: Well, first of all, I think it really depends on the age of your child, because anything that is smaller than a ping pong ball, if you give it to somebody who's in that oral stage, they will put it in their mouth and it could be a choking hazard. And so let's just pretend like I'm talking to only people whose kids are a little bit older than that. Past that stage, of course, all the boxes. And then I would say just look all around you. Straws, toothpicks, putty, masking tape, all of the different kind of clays and stuff like that that you can use to connect things. Cork, foam, pipes, sheets. Let's see what are some other things that come to mind? All the buttons and screws and the little things that you can use to not only manipulate to create something engineering wise, but also for decoration. I think it's really fun just to do junk art and let kids glue things together, create this big statue or whatever it is, and then spray paint it with gold paint and it looks beautiful. I think even teaching children to use tools, screwdrivers and snippers and pliers and just figuring out how to use those. There are some low temperature glue guns that are helpful for connecting things, with some supervision, of course. But even just using the tools is such great fine motor work. And the scissors, just need to know how to use scissors, just using scissors to cut things is a really good idea. Fabrics, yarn, string, gosh.

[23:36] Dr. Diane: Well, and I don't know about you, but I know that when I was running the preschool, I was constantly surprised by how many kids came to us not knowing how to use scissors. And that was such an important part for building up their grip, for being able to manipulate fine motor. And I think parents were afraid of what would happen if you had scissors. So obviously there's the supervision piece. But one of the things I love to do is to have a tub. And I just had a tub of scraps and we had the scissors in the tub and the kids at that table could cut things apart and learned how to use the scissors safely.

[24:13] Ann: Yeah. And I think that it's really great that some very smart people have figured out how to make scissors that only cut paper. They won't cut hair, they won't cut skin. They won't cut the things that we don't want children to cut, but it still allows them to have that, to learn that skill of using their hand in that way. I teach the two to four year olds at church in Sunday school, and I asked them to please buy some of those scissors. And we got them out a couple of weeks ago and boy, those children, they didn't have the first clue how to use the scissors. And so I think it's a great thing that we're going to be doing that on Sundays to begin, because you do have to eventually learn how to hold that pencil. You need to learn how to do a good pencil grip. And there are stages of development, just like everything with children, everything is developmental. And so there's a process. And part of that process is building those little hands so that they can do the things they need to do when they get to be a little bit older.

How do we set very young learners (ages 0-3) up for a successful life of tinkering, playing, and creating?

[25:13] Dr. Diane: And thinking about sort of the demographic you work primarily with, the zero to threes, how would you set them up for success, for a life of tinkering and playing and creating in the very early years?

[25:29] Ann: Well, I think probably in the first three years you're really kind of starting your toy collection at home, right? And everyone's asking you what do you want for your baby? Even as a little bitty, I would think in terms of that kind of toy, there are just magnatiles and the things that allow children to build and construct are so much more useful than the toys that just have buttons and things and noises to make. My granddaughter is two and a half. And she will put they've got this big whiteboard that's child level, floor level, and she'll use the magnatiles and she'll build things and she gets the ones that have the hole in them. And then she gets a marker and she writes inside that little hole. And she just is using so much fine motor stuff because she's using these types of materials that are very open ended and very directed towards that type of play.

What brings you hope in terms of parenting and families and early education?

[26:48] Ann: I think one of the best things that parents have going for them right now is they have access to so much great information and children do too, of course. And so I have a lot of hope that parents, they're seeking and they're learning and if you just hop into the social media space and look at what people are young parents are saying to each other about this, they're like a force to be reckoned with. They are fiercely figuring out how to parent their children in a way that is good for their kids. And so I think that's a really cool and hopeful thing. I think it's really interesting to think about the fact that our world is changing so much and the jobs that our children will have are not even invented yet. They are going to be so much a part of this robotic world and they are going to need a very creative brain to tell the robots what to do and to make the things happen that need to happen. And so it's hard for us to even understand how to prepare that, but the way that we do it is to prepare them to be very curious thinkers who look for ways to figure things out in a very hands on and creative way.

[28:16] Dr. Diane: What a wonderful and refreshing way to end this conversation. Thank you for bringing your own brand of curiosity and wonder to the Adventures In Learning podcast. We've been talking to Ann McKitrick and I encourage you strongly to go follow her podcast Parenting in the First Three Years and also definitely go check out her website, You can subscribe to her newsletter and it's definitely worth it. I will include all of that in the show notes. But Ann, thank you so much for joining us.

[28:47] Ann: You are so welcome. I loved our conversation. Thanks for having me.

You can contact Ann McKitrick via email:

Check out her webpage,

You can also follow her on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

I recently had the joy of speaking with Ann McKitrick on her podcast. We talked about the natural curiosity of young children and how families, educators, and caregivers can work with that curiosity to help them explore STEM connections and the world around them. Give it a listen.

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