Season 1, Episode 6: Adventures in Learning with Teacher, Curriculum Designer, and Comedy Improv Team Member Jessica Farmer; Hosted by Dr. Diane Jackson Schnoor
Meet Jessica Farmer, a former preschool teacher and current curriculum creator and Nashville improv comedy group member. We explore the importance of play -- for early childhood and for every day life -- in this episode of the Adventures in Learning podcast.
You are in for a treat because we're going to be exploring learning through play, and Jessica has some really interesting insights on the power of play and learning. So we're going to be talking about early childhood, we're going to be talking about play, and we might talk a little bit about some improv comedy as well.
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Jessica currently works as the manager for the Pre K curriculum product design at Quaver Ed, based in Nashville, Tennessee. "I kind of joked that this was the dream job I never knew existed," Jessica says. Prior to working at Quaver Ed, Jessica taught preschool for the Nashville Public Schools for five years. Those experiences inform her work at Quaver, as well as fueled our conversation about the importance of playful learning. [00:58]
I always love finding out what childhood ambitions fueled our guests -- and how those ambitions translate into their current adult lives. [03:44] In Jessica's case, she wanted to be an actress from a very young age -- although she did consider running for President of the United States in 8th grade. As an educator and presenter, I've always believed that the best teachers also have a bit of the actor or performer living inside them -- it's what I call "showtime" or the act of engaging learners, getting them intrigued and interested, and then helping them connect to the content. And the sillier you are willing to be (or the more fearless you are willing to be), the more engaged and receptive I've personally found audiences of all ages to be.
At [05:20] we swapped stories about the early playful influences from our own childhoods that later impacted the way we approached teaching, early childhood education, and -- dare I say it -- life. Jessica has two brothers and remembers discovering science and nature through outdoor play. "Yes, there was science, but it was definitely that play based science that we wouldn't have called science at the time," Jessica says. "Now I think we're really tuned into how exploratory science is for early childhood. But I have a lot of memories of playing outside, of making food out of mud and leaves and lots of stuff like that with my friends and then with my brothers and my cousins."
Jessica's memories prompted me to recall my own childhood play experiences. One of my best friends when I was little was Tommy Timmes (who now goes by Tom and is a highly respected civil and environmental engineering professor). We used to ride our bikes all around the neighborhood with our siblings and our other friends, Howie, Alan, and Julia. I remember playing our own version of Laff-A-Lympics, which was big at the time. It was a Saturday morning cartoon featuring fake Olympic type games between Scooby Doo and all the Hanna Barbara characters. And we would set up these obstacle courses and get all the neighbor kids involved and basically stage our own Saturday morning cartoon Olympics. Those strong play experiences as children seeded the sense of adventure, joy, and fun that have enveloped my own philosophy of learning to this day.
Tom is a really good sport. This is one of the very rare pictures from those third grade days in Mrs. Eva Ledbetter's class that we were able to collectively find. He's the lead elf and I'm Mrs. Claus in our class play.
Why is play important?
According to Jessica, play is "important because it's just part of being alive. It's almost like, why is breathing important? It's almost like, how do you answer that? Because it's natural." [06:44]
There are a number of studies that support the importance of play in early childhood learning -- but the benefits stretch throughout all ages and aspects of learning. Playful learning often includes theme-based learning and project-based learning, where children construct knowledge by exploring a real-world problem. Research laid out by Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Dr. Helen Hadani (2020) highlights many of these studies and explores six key characteristics for playful learning. According to the research, playful learning needs to be active (“minds on”), engaging, meaningful (connections between new concepts and personally relevant information), socially interactive, iterative (offers opportunities to generate, test, and revise ideas, aka guided play), and joyful.
If you want to delve deeper into the topic beyond this podcast or blog post, here are a few links and studies to get you going:
A New Path to Education Reform: Playful Learning Promotes 21st Century Skills in Schools and Beyond (2020). Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Dr. Helen Hadani
"We recommend adopting a method for keeping students engaged in the classroom, reflecting the latest evidence on how children learn best. Through this approach, students and teachers will see that learning can be active, engaging, meaningful, socially interactive, iterative, and joyful. Playful learning advances these goals and will facilitate instruction using a breadth of skills approach that we call the 6 Cs: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence, all of which are evidence-based, malleable, and, to some degree, measurable. While play is often associated with the early years, we advocate for the critical role of playful learning in all stages and grades. This method does not require educators to adopt a specific curriculum, but rather respects their expertise in the classroom by offering educational principles that can be widely applied." Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Dr. Helen Hadani
The Importance of Play for Young Children (published by NAEYC, the National Association for the Education of Young Children) This excerpt offers examples of what play looks like for ages 0-36 months, as well as the researched benefits of that play.
The Power of Playful Learning in the Early Childhood Setting (2022). This piece, which is an excerpt from Chapter 5 in Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth Through Age 8, Fourth Edition (NAEYC 2022), suggests that defining play on a spectrum (Zosh et al. 2018, an idea first introduced by Bergen 1988) provides a powerful framework that puts playful learning—rich curriculum coupled with a playful pedagogy—front and center as a model for all early childhood educators.
Learning through ‘guided’ play can be as effective as adult-led instruction up to at least age eight: Play-based learning may also have a more positive effect on younger children’s acquisition of important early maths skills compared with traditional, direct instruction. University of Cambridge. (2022, January 12). ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 2, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/01/220112094006.htm
Examples of Connecting Play and Learning in the Early Childhood Classroom
Exploring the notion of guided play, Jessica shares examples of ways that she used choice or center time as a strategy in her own preschool classrooms. "Embedding play in the classroom is really a lot of work for the teacher," Jessica says. "I just want to say out loud, yes, it's tougher for the teacher than not. And so a lot of onus is on the teacher to follow the child's curiosity and then to ask good questions about what they're doing and can we extend their interest into writing in a way that feels organic and exciting to them?" [10:09]
"Center or choice time really lent itself to a lot of organic writing opportunity," Jessica adds. [12:04]. "Another thing, math. I love finding sneaky ways to put math into play. Like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears — I love the measurement opportunities that can extend into play from that story."
"There are so many opportunities to allow the child to take the lead on play. But as a teacher, you set the stage for that play, and so you provided the props and the things that you hope they'd engage with, knowing that that's where you wanted them to go. So if you wanted measurement, you made sure there was a ruler or a tape measure or pencils and paper in the center so that they could use those props as they were going. If you were reading all the different versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, then you might talk about it, have them act it out. And then in the center, you've got bowls and measuring cups, and you've got different props they can use. You've got different materials for building chairs, and you can give them challenges: today as you're playing, can you build me the perfect chair for the Three Bears?" Dr Diane [13:17]
Jessica reminisced about ways she would build connections by having the children contribute to class books connected to monthly fairy or folk tales. "It just blew me away how engaged the children were and how creative the books became. So we would rewrite the Gingerbread Man. Sometimes the child would write their own page or we would write as a group, just different ways to write books. But they loved it because it was their project, because they were experts on this story, not because it was a writing activity." [14:04]
When I was director at Millbrook Community Preschool, we used to create child authored and illustrated class books to accompany different themes or to go with the author/illustrator we were exploring that month. As a preschool, we featured those class books in our classrooms and play spaces right next to other published books, allowing the students to browse them at will. "So they could pull them out during reading time and read their work. And when their parents came in to visit or their grandparents or other family members, they'd show off their work. And again, it's that validation that what you have to say matters." [14:47]
"I think what's really important is making sure the curriculum has a flexibility inside it for the teacher to have the autonomy and reminders, like reminders and autonomy to cater that day to his or her classroom’s demographics," Jessica adds, building connections between her past experience in the public schools and her current work as a curriculum designer. [18:08]
[19:11] Dr Diane: That makes a lot of sense to me. I think that teachers face so many challenges today, and there's more and more work being piled onto early educators in particular. And so when we respect the love and the compassion that they bring to what they're doing and give them the tools to be able to truly honor each family's experience, I think that makes a huge difference.
Strategies for building connections between play, children's literature and hands-on STEAM to create effective learning environments in early childhood:
A big issue for early childhood educators is recognizing that what they are doing naturally in terms of inquiry and exploration falls under the heading of STEM or STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Math) and being intentional about creating an environment for hands-on exploration and thought-provoking demonstrations. "I love that you brought up STEAM, because I'll be honest, I didn't know if I was doing STEAM," Jessica says. "It wasn't really on my radar. And when I went to your conference workshop, I thought, oh, I guess I was teaching STEAM." [21:07]
[21:27] Dr Diane: Yeah, I think that's absolutely normal for us as early childhood educators. One of the stories that I share is I was doing STEM and STEAM in the classroom long before that term was out there, and I just didn't realize it. I mean, think of every child you've ever had who has asked you how many bones are in a giraffe's neck? And you then go and you investigate. Or all the times that you've built bridges and you've gone through the engineering and design process with kids, or that you've gone on scientific investigations about what makes a drop of water, and you're connecting that back to literature. You're doing STEAM. And I think that as early childhood educators, we sometimes short change ourselves about the natural inquiry that we're doing with kids in the classroom.
Building Connections Through The Gingerbread Man (and other variations):
When building STEAM connections in early childhood, Jessica admits she's a fan of folktales because they lend themselves to repetition and a wide range of variants. She offered the example of ways she would build curriculum around the Gingerbread Man with her students. As part of integrating The Gingerbread Man and its variations, she would use repeated readings, dramatization and acting out the stories, and building in organic writing connections. "And so there's the literacy and the comprehension and then the science," she says. "We did a lot of things like going on a scavenger hunt of the Gingerbread Man through the entire school. And so the Gingerbread Man leaves little silly notes and we get to find the notes and go to the next spot. And then from that you could create a map. Where did we go and why, and then we get to see that spatial reasoning." [22:32]
One year with the Gingerbread Man, Jessica's students became enchanted with the idea of the house itself. "We brought in big cardboard boxes and we talked about designing it," she recalls. [24:07] "And inside the classroom, we created this life sized Gingerbread Man house and we had wallpaper samples, and we were also studying construction. So we designed the house on the cardboard, and we glued on wood and siding. And then eventually we decorated it with icing and cookies. And as a teacher, I had someone say, oh my gosh, aren't you worried about bugs? And I was like, yes, but I'm going to do it anyway. And we did it, and there really was not a bug issue, but we had this decorated Gingerbread Baby house for a while, probably a week or so." A great book to provide support and connection for this STEM challenge is the recently published The Plan for the Gingerbread House: A STEM Engineering Story.
Jessica's Gingerbread construction activities got me thinking about the many versions of the Gingerbread Man that are available to compare and contrast across cultural perspectives, including:
The Musubi Man (Hawaiian version)
The Gurabia Man (Armenia version)
The Runaway Wok (Chinese variation)
Gingerbread House photos provided by Jessica Farmer
After thinking about ways to integrate STEAM and playful learning through folk and fairy tales, Jessica shares her top three takeaways for teachers based on what she's learned for fostering successful learning through play. [26:44]
Embrace the fairy tales. They help with classroom management because the kids are interested, and they help you extend projects.
Welcome the children's families into your class. When you invite the families and use them as valuable tools for your classroom, it's very rewarding, and it makes your life a little bit easier, too.
Create centers and opportunities for child-centered guided play every day.
[28:16] Dr Diane: And that's the key, I think we said that earlier, is that you let the child lead as the teacher. You set up the structure to support that play, and you're able to engage and scaffold with wonderful questions and opportunities and activities that are ultimately going to get to those same goals. But it's going to do it in a healthier way for everybody.
For this next portion of the show notes/blog, I want to share the transcript for a few more guided play/playful learning experiences that we discussed based on our own past teaching experiences. These experiences involve dragons, blocks, insects, and more. Enjoy!
Guided Play In Action -- Mechanical Dragons, Poetry, and STEM
[34:27] Dr Diane: So we talked about folktales and fairy tales. Are there any other lessons that really stand out as being a favorite thing you loved to teach and make connections with?
[34:37] Jessica: Oh, okay. I love blocks. Having a full block center with a nice big open space, that was one of my favorite things. I'm trying to think specific lessons within blocks.
[34:54] Dr Diane: You're talking about blocks. You triggered stuff for me because I remember I used to love our block center as well because there's so much that goes on in blocks. Talk about a vehicle for STEM or STEAM — blocks does that. And we used to post posters or poems in the area. And that started back with my dissertation research. I did my dissertation based on preschoolers’ responses to poetry. And we were looking at would they respond to poetry, and particularly if it was connected to and embedded in meaningful activity? And so with one of the poems we had, Jack Prelutsky's “I Made a Mechanical Dragon” (The Dragons are Singing Tonight), which I can still remember the first couple of lines: “I made a mechanical dragon out of boxes and papers and strings.” And it goes on. I mean, this is the first maker dragon ever. It's like all of these pieces, they're part of the dragon. And so, in true teacher fashion, we wrote the poem on a dragon so they could have the environmental print in the area. We read the poem over and over, and the kids spontaneously, just by having that poster in the center, started building their own dragons and more and more dragons all week. And it became this thing with what else can we build dragons with? And so they brought in LEGOs and they did blocks and it became an obsession that lasted for weeks. And so when I had my own preschool, we brought that in and we did stuff like that. So we had the mechanical dragon and then we'd post other poems and they would sometimes just start as STEM starters for the kids on what are we going to build today? And you'd have the poem in the corner and it would be something that they could go and do. And it was a really simple thing. Didn't require a lot of extra work or extra prep. But you were introducing poetry, connecting it to whatever that month’s theme was, and using your block center as a place for the kids to have their own lab to explore.
[36:46] Jessica: That sounds incredible. It kind of just gave me chills when you said they just started creating their own.
Building Connections Through STEM/STEAM and Art with Eric Carle (and a full year of animal classifications and explorations through guided play)
[37:06] Jessica: One thing I also loved was doing an author study, but based on the art. For example, Eric Carle. I had a class where we really did Eric Carle style illustrations. And it was so powerful the way they would talk about Eric Carle after that as if he was their colleague. It was just fabulous.
[37:37] Dr Diane: Absolutely. Did you do the collage where they were ripping the paper and gluing it on together? That kind of stuff?
[37:44] Jessica: Yes. We started with a sturdy piece of paper and they would paint it one color and it might have a little bit of white and stuff in it and then we let that dry for a day so they all have this really rich background. And then we would do the tissue collage so it was very textured and just very beautiful. And so they were so proud of that.
[38:06] Dr Diane: That's awesome. At Millbrook Community Preschool, we used to use Eric Carle in conjunction with insects and caterpillars and butterflies and metamorphosis. And so we would do the art as a basis as we were looking at The Very Clumsy Click Beetle, and The Very Quiet Cricket, and The Grouchy Ladybug. We would connect all of those together and they would compare and contrast different insects as well during that time. And it became part of a year long study, where I think I referenced the kid who wanted to know how many bones were in a giraffe's neck.
[38:47] Jessica: That's an amazing question.
How many bones are in a giraffe's neck?
[38:48] Dr Diane: There are seven, by the way. It's the same as you and I have. I learned that early on because Andrew was very interested, and so because that year he happened to be my animal lover, it became part of what we did. And so by the end of this year, the kids were able to tell you the characteristics of a mammal, of a reptile, of an insect, of a bird, and they could compare and contrast it. And it was all through hands on exploration. It was through the things we read, through the pictures we looked at, through the play that they had, the field trips. We were able to bring in a zookeeper because there was a zoo nearby. And so we had a zookeeper come and talk about what they did. And these kids really had a depth of knowledge because it was their interest that you'd find in a middle school, I think, just because they were so interested and we went with what they wanted to learn about. And I was able to embed alphabet learning and numbers and all the rest of it in there, but I started with their play and where they wanted to go, and so we built in opportunities to play and to learn, and it was great.
Teaching and Comedy -- More Alike Than You'd Think
At [29:53], we discover a little more about how Jessica has turned her childhood acting aspirations into comedy improv as an adult. "I very much love improvisational comedy, and I've also very much hated it at times, so that's why I say it's a journey," says Jessica. "But currently I'm in a female group and we perform once a month in Nashville, and we're very silly and irreverent and fun, and I love it."
If you want to dive deeper into Jessica's improv journey, I highly recommend her appearance on Episode 29 of Feeding the Senses.
Jessica discovered comedy improv in her twenties when she was studying acting.
[30:49] "I met an improv teacher that I really connected with -- his name is Armando Diaz if improvisers are listening," Jessica says. "He's a wonderful teacher, and he really helped me at the time to appreciate my gifts." When really serious dramatic acting classes filled Jessica with doubts and fears, improv helped her to have fun again."I realized maybe I was kind of good at this," she notes. "And to me, that's just been so powerful because I think the connection is the play, and it's improv, so it is not scripted. So just like early childhood, we have to work with what is exactly in front of us, very literal. If we create too much meaning and get our ideas too much in the way, it's not interesting, it's not powerful, it's not really truthful anymore. It's sort of just someone else's idea. And so for me, as a teacher, I think improv helps. That skill of active listening to what's happening right in front of me with the children and rather than what I think I'm supposed to do, what's happening right now is where my head needs to be."
If you could turn back time to the first day of teaching, what is one thing you wish someone had told you?
"I wish someone had told me how hard it is and that it's okay, that I'm okay," says Jessica. "That I was told something about being gentler with myself. That's something that I think would be useful for teachers to know -- that we're not perfect. And it is a really hard job. It's hard." [33:39]
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Please visit www.drdianeadventures.com to learn more about how I help early childhood and elementary educators and librarians build connections between STEAM and multicultural picture books for engaged learning. Now booking keynotes, conference presentations, and professional development workshops for the 2022-23 school year.
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Welcome to the launch of a brand new adventure. In the spirit of building connections, we are going to be talking to a wide range of fascinating people this season. Each episode will explore adventures in learning from a unique perspective, plus feature interesting children's literature and picture books that will pair beautifully with STEM/STEAM challenges for engaged learning. Expect to hear from teachers, authors, STEM leaders, and more. There might even be a #bestdayever surprise or two in store.