Category Archives: Guidance

Summer Group Dynamics

Many people are surprised when I say that I look forward to summer time when the all the children are here for the full day.  I’ve even considered taking my vacation in the spring instead of summer just so I could have even more full days with the children. Unfortunately, closing for vacation in spring, during the school year, would be troublesome for bus schedules and school/work routines so I don’t.  I do, however, take only two weeks of vacation time in the summer instead of three, four, or even more that many other providers choose to take.

Summer is over now and the older children have returned to school.  This year I say that with a sigh of relief.  This summer was very long – and complicated. This was the summer that I wished I had taken more time off.  This was the summer that almost did me in – there were some days that it took so much effort just to unlock the front door and greet the children with a smile.

So why was this summer so troublesome?  There was only one new child in the group; the others have been here for at least a year – and up to six years.  Over the summer I spent a lot of time observing their interactions and reflecting.  There were a couple of children that tended to stand out – not in a good way.  It would be easy to label these children as ‘difficult’.  It would be easy to say that if they were not here then everything would run smoothly.

Easy would not be correct.  Although many of them have been attending here for years this ‘group’ has not been together before.  I actually have 11 children enrolled in my eight childcare spaces because some only attend part time.  Some attend only during school hours while others only attend when school is out.  Some have spent plenty of time together but not recently – and they’ve discovered that their ‘best friend’ has changed since they were together last – they have new interests.  There was a lot of turmoil within this group.

So, here are some of my observations – I’ve given the children bird names because I can’t use their real names and I didn’t want to number them;

Finch is curious, energetic and at times – defiant. Robin is imaginative and often oblivious to the conduct of the rest of the group.  These two have little interest in most group activities but will participate for short periods before wandering away to something they find more interesting.  Sparrow is wildly creative and independent, always has elaborate plans and is proficient at free play.  Sparrow enjoys cooperative group activities but gets frustrated by conflict and will usually return to solitary activities instead.  These three require very little guidance from me.

Canary is bubbly and full of energy but relies on others to make activity choices. Often Canary has difficulty staying on task.  Canary can become deeply engaged in cooperative play activities with Sparrow if not distracted.  Others sometimes take advantage of Canary’s trusting nature and they encourage undesirable behaviour.  Canary can be easily redirected and is never rebellious.

Jay is a keen observer who is very concerned about status and focused on results – definitely product over process.  Easily overwhelmed, Jay is drawn to group activities but rarely participates – preferring to watch or be watched.  When frustrated, Jay resorts to disrupting play in an effort to divide the group into smaller, more manageable clusters.  Jay can play cooperatively with one or two others in a non-competitive activity – preferably something constructive but not challenging.  Jay is very sensitive and views any suggestion or advice as a personal attack.

Pigeon….so wants to be where the action is, hates to be alone and is willing to do anything, absolutely anything, to be a part of the group.  Others often view Pigeon as annoying and therefore avoid contact which intensifies Pigeon’s efforts to be noticed.  Pigeon has little self control and cannot refuse a dare – no matter how outrageous.  Pigeon has great difficulty with unstructured activities but enjoys adult led group activities.  If the others allow it, Pigeon makes a wonderful addition to any group activity.  One rule infraction and Pigeon seems to feel the day is a total loss and any further attempt to behave or cooperate is now pointless.

Crow is extremely intelligent but easily bored and has little interest in most free play activities.  Crow follows instructions impeccably when participating in adult led group activities or working independently.  Within the group Crow’s favourite role is that of ‘puppet master’ – controlling others activities as a form of entertainment.  Crow has superb leadership capabilities which should be used more constructively.  Initiating or encouraging others inappropriate behaviour seems to be a great source of amusement for Crow particularly with Falcon as an accomplice.

Falcon is the oldest/biggest/strongest of the group and also highly competitive. Falcon does not like to play independently or cooperatively.  Falcon excels at constructive activities.  Whenever others are engaged in a cooperative group activity Falcon swoops in and modifies the activity into something where Falcon is most successful and the others either fail or quit playing.

When Crow and Falcon collaborate world domination is possible – and Jay and Pigeon are guaranteed to be casualties.  The others are safe if they have somewhere to play independently – if not, then they will be part of the fallout too.

This was my summer group.  I will not say any one of these children was the sole cause of disturbances nor were any of them completely faultless. It was the group dynamics and it was a very difficult group. Working on ‘prevention’ is so much easier than dealing with the ‘aftermath’ but both were very time consuming endeavours.

I was constantly analyzing and anticipating – trying to determine whether we needed more structured activities or more free play, more group activities or time to be independent.  How could we balance the needs of all the children in this group?

Certainly there was a ‘best’ scenario: Finch and Robin playing independently, Sparrow and Canary playing together in an elaborate imaginary world of their own,  Jay helping Falcon to create another great superstructure and Crow sitting with Pigeon working together on a planned project.  Yet, I couldn’t keep them separated like this indefinitely.  Besides, avoiding conflict will never teach us how to deal with it.

We had some really great times this summer and some terrible, horrible, wish-this-day-never-happened times too.  I didn’t keep score but for the first time I’m very, very glad that summer is over and school has started and the group dynamics have changed.

Good vs. Evil

Weapon play and fighting games – allowed or forbidden – that is a controversial question.  It doesn’t have and easy answer.  I don’t encourage the use weapons and I don’t have toy guns or swords available in the playroom.  However, that doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t let the children pretend to use guns and swords.  Confused?

This confusion is due to the difficulty in defining the ‘fighting’ aspect of the children’s games.  So, I’m going to try to provide an explanation of my views on the subject. First, let me discuss weapons.  What is a weapon? According to the legal dictionary at  a weapon is “An instrument of combat; something to fight with – used or designed to injure or kill”.  So then, consider these scenarios – all actual dramatic play activities that I have observed the children engage in;

  1.  The princess and her friends have been captured by the evil witch.  They are trapped in a dungeon and tied up with imaginary ropes and chains.  The Knight arrives and to rescue them uses his imaginary sword to cut them free.  The princess creates a magic potion and the group chases down the witch who begs for mercy and promises to be good.  The group ignores her pleas claiming ‘You are evil and that will never change’ and they use the potion to destroy her.
  2. The ‘Family’ is at home. The mother is putting her children to bed.  She covers them gently with blankets and reads them a story and then goes to do some housework.  The father is busy using tools to repair the home. A ‘cat’ crawls into the area where the children are sleeping.  The children start to panic, crying for their mother to come and save them.  The mother rushes over and pretends to spray the cat with the soap. The cat is upset and says ‘But I am a good cat and I want to play with you’.  ‘Too bad, you don’t belong here and you have to stay out.’ the mother says.  The father uses a hammer to threaten the cat and chases it away.
  3. The hunters are hiking through the forest.  They use binoculars to spy their imaginary prey.  Slowly they move forward to sneak up on the bear/dragon/dinosaur.  They work together whispering and using gestures to coordinate their movements and corner the beast — then they kill it with their imaginary weapon.  Sometimes the beast gets one of them first and the game play changes as one hunter gets his injured friend to safety.
  4. Two spacemen are engaged in combat – they narrate their actions so the other knows how to interpret the actions.  They are on opposite sides of the room – several other children are present but involved in other unrelated activities.  One spaceman holds his arms out with his palms open toward the other and says “I am forcing you with my power”.  The other responds “I put up my shields and the beam bounces back at you”.   The first one replies “I’m hit”, he falls slowly to the ground – careful to avoid the nearby structure being created in the block area. He then pulls a crystal from his pocket and uses it to restore his ship’s power and the battle continues.

So, which ones are fighting games?  Which ones may require me to become involved?  I’ll tell you what I see;

  1. The princess was in danger and the knight used the sword as a tool, not a weapon.  The princess’ potion is not necessarily considered a weapon but in this case it is used as one.  I would not ban this type of play however, I would use this opportunity to discuss weather the ‘person’ was bad or their ‘action’ was.  In my opinion this princess was just as evil as the witch.  Retaliation is not a good solution to solving disputes.
  2. This is the worst type of fighting game and I will be putting a stop to it immediately.  The children involved here will vehemently deny that they are using any weapons – but they are.  So should I ban the workshop tools and cleaning supplies?  They will deny that they are being mean and excluding the cat – they will have excuses such as ‘allergies’.  Even if they agree to let him play they will continue to be bullies only more subtle and they will watch me just as closely as I am watching them. In fact, they will probably stop playing this game all together because I ruined it.
  3. I love this game.  The cooperation and camaraderie must be commended and encouraged.  Yes, there are weapons and violence involved but it is not the main focus and there are no ‘people as targets’ – which is something that I discourage.  If I did intervene here it would simply be to clarify their reason for killing.  Food? Survival?
  4. OK, this one is in a ‘grey’ area.  They are using people as targets but the players in this game are in total agreement.  They are being respectful of everyone and everything around them.  There is no actual physical contact – most of the play is through conversation.  The younger children in the room are not trying to join in or mimic the older ones – in fact, most of them are unaware that this is actually a fighting game.  Those that do may come to me and ‘tattle’ which will give us the opportunity to have a discussion about what we are observing as the game continues.  This is a teachable moment.

Basically, it all comes down to respect. If the children are being respectful of the space and other people — involved in the game or not, I will not redirect the activity even if it is a fighting game and they are using weapons. Some may agree with me, others may not.  Like I said at the beginning, it’s controversial.

The Waiting Game

I don’t schedule ‘sit and wait’ times but occasionally the children are required to wait – usually because they were too fast for me.  For example, they clean-up their toys, wash their hands and sit down for lunch while I finish making lunch and dish up the food.

If they are seated before I’m finished plating the food then they will have a short period of ‘waiting’ time.  Sometimes when they have to wait they will play ‘I Spy’.  I’ve written about this game before — here.

We don’t use the dining table for any purpose other than meals so we have some rules here to encourage appropriate table manners and conversation.  Basically the rules are ‘Keep your hands to yourself and talk politely using words.’  Really, those rules apply other places too but at the table we discourage ‘actions’ and “talk politely using words” is better than “stop waving your arms”.  The “hands to yourself” rule is important here because the children don’t have the option to walk away when someone else is poking at them.

Usually the children are capable of sustaining conversations while they wait.  Often they have stories to share that they forgot about when they were ‘busy’ in the play room or outdoors.  Some may say that ‘waiting time’ is actually ‘thinking time’.

Occasionally if they are tired or overexcited and it may be necessary for me to redirect or guide the conversations.  Usually though they lead the conversations.  When they are not interested in chatting about their day or making plans for later they will play I Spy or something similar.  Recently they began something new – they have been making up riddles.

I find these riddles interesting or amusing and, although I’m usually busy with meal prep, I’ve managed to write a few of them down;

  • Child 1 – I have long ears
  • Child 2 – A rabbit?
  • Child 1 – No, there is more.  I am yellow and brown.  I step on things.  I’m in the Lion King Movie.
  • All the children – A giraffe!
  • Child 2 – My turn.  I have feathers
  • All the children – A bird?
  • Child 2 – No, I have things sticking out of my head.
  • All the children – A PEACOCK!!
  • Child 2 – Yes!  (note-peacocks are currently one of their favourite creatures but maybe we should learn some more about them).
  • Child 3 – I roar
  • Child 1 – A lion?
  • Child 3 – I have a long tail
  • Child 1 – A dinosaur?
  • Child 3 – Yes! You win!

Sometimes it is hard to stay focused on getting lunch ready 🙂  I’m considering pursuing riddles further – perhaps as a group activity or craft.  For now though, it is a great game to play while you wait.

“I’m Sorry”

Last week I read Teacher Tom’s blog post entitled ‘Hitting’.  It made me cry.

In his post, Teacher Tom outlined how they respond to hitting and other such behaviours in their cooperative preschool program.  He followed it up with a couple more posts that offer additional related information.

As always, his posts were very informative and easy to understand. His ability to articulate difficult situations always amazes me.  His focus is, as it should be, on the reason behind the behaviour — addressing the cause – teaching the children how to respond appropriately – and the importance of remaining calm.

So why did the post upset me?

It was the eighth step that he outlined in his ‘Learning Through Conflict’ plan that bothered me.  The formal apology – and again he so wonderfully explains why he doesn’t feel it is necessary.  I agree with him.

If there is one thing that drives me crazy it is the insistence that an incident isn’t over until someone says “I’m Sorry”.  His line about the initial conflict becoming “diverted into a conflict between parent and child as the former insists on the word “sorry” and the child refuses” brought back vivid images of an incident that happened very early in my childcare career.

At home time, a mom and I were standing at the front door engaged in a conversation.  Her three year old daughter was waiting patiently.  She was not interrupting us.  She was not jumping or climbing or playing with stuff in the cubbies.  She was simply waiting, one hand on the wall for support, one foot on the ground and the other foot swinging back and forth.  She was humming a song, swinging her leg, and waiting – wonderfully.

Then she kicked me.

It wasn’t done on purpose and I was not hurt.  The child immediately realized her mistake and froze. Two tiny hands clamped over her mouth and tears welling up in her eyes as she stared up at me. I put my hand on her shoulder and told her it was ok – I knew it was an accident and she hadn’t meant to do it.  There was really no actual conflict. It should have ended here, but it didn’t.

Her mother sprang into action.  Lecturing about how kicking hurts people and demanding that she apologize.  The child started to sob; shaking and crying and unable to speak.  Her exasperated mother apologized to me for her child’s behaviour, took her by the hand and hurried out the door.

But even then it was not over.  More than an hour later the phone rang and when I answered it the mother said “My daughter has something to say to you”.  She then handed the phone to the sobbing three-year-old who managed to sputter “I’m sorry I kicked you” before putting down the phone and wailing. 

So was it over now? Were the words “I’m Sorry” really necessary?  I don’t think so, at least not in this case. In fact, for me they made it worse.  Teacher Tom says he will not judge you if you insist that your child apologizes – but I might.

The real point I wanted to make though is the importance of letting those involved in the conflict work it out themselves. A conflict is resolved when those involved in it are ok with the outcome.  It doesn’t matter if the observer doesn’t think the outcome is correct or fair.

Certainly guidance from a bystander can be helpful sometimes – especially for those with little experience settling conflicts.  Suggestions can be useful if there is an impasse but if those involved are attempting to resolve the issue there is absolutely no need to intervene.

Here, if the children have an issue they are given the opportunity to work it out.  If necessary they can be separated from the group to prevent outside interference.  Assistance is available if required but after the dispute is resolved and there is peace again it is over.

Was their solution fair?  Was it correct?  That’s not for me to decide.  Did someone say “I’m Sorry”?  Maybe not but those words are not what is important.

Boredom & Initiative

In my last post I mentioned that usually it is the school age children that have the most difficulty with free play time.  This was a generalized comment and the problem is in part due to the mixed age group setting.

In Manitoba a licensed family childcare home can have a maximum of eight children and no more than five of those children may be under 6 years old – three of the eight must be school-age.

In my opinion some of the greatest benefits of a mixed age group are the opportunity for the childcare provider to build a relationship with the child as they develop and for the child to experience playing and working with children at various developmental levels. When a child is enrolled in a family childcare home as an infant they may be able to stay with that same caregiver throughout their preschool years and even as they begin school.

I say ‘may’ because the province has set a higher daily rate for infants (children under 2 years of age) than for preschoolers (2-5 years old) and some providers will choose the money over the child and not keep a child in an infant space after they turn two.  This is a practice that I find upsetting but I understand that some providers simply cannot accept the drop in income which can be as much as $600/month.  The bond between child and caregiver is so very important and I will always choose to keep child as long as possible even if it results in a loss of income.  I would like to see infant and preschool rates equalized but that is another rant so let me get back to the topic of those school-age children.

Due to the fact that care for preschool children is harder to find, parents often have to look for childcare outside the area that they live in.  Therefore when the child starts school they may need to leave their current childcare setting in order for the child to attend the appropriate school. When this happens there is no currently enrolled preschool child to move into a vacant school-age space.  Many family childcare providers have difficulty filling these school-age spaces and some choose to focus on preschool care and leave their school-age spaces empty.

So, the most likely time for me to enrol a new child in my childcare home is when they are an infant or when they are school-age. For all of us there is an adjustment period while we get to know each other but infants are more adaptable so this adjustment period is usually shorter.  If a school-age child was here as an infant or preschooler our relationship is already well established and although we may have our ups and downs we’re ‘family’ and we work through it.  Those ‘new’ school-age children are the hardest particularly if they have little experience in a setting with younger children.

In a family childcare home with eight children there are rarely more than three school age children. Three is a pretty small group when you’re used to interacting in a larger group in a classroom or childcare centre.  Three is an even smaller group when you consider ‘school age’ can be anywhere from 6 years old to 12 years old or more and you may not have much in common.  Add to that the restrictions because you have to consider that there are babies and toddlers watching everything you do and it is almost unbearable.

Sometimes they resent being placed in a setting ‘with little kids’ – after all, they are growing up and it may feel like a punishment to be in a group with babies. Sometimes they want to help look after the younger ones but it often comes across as ‘bossy’ – at least that’s how the younger ones view it because they have been here longer and already ‘know everything’. One of the hardest lessons for the older children can be learning the difference between ‘helping’ someone who needs assistance and ‘interfering’ when someone is trying to be independent. Many conflicts can arise in these situations.

You know who often does really well in this mixed age setting? — The school age child that doesn’t ‘fit’ with a large group of peers.  The one that is insecure – unsure if their abilities will measure up to those of others their age – who suddenly realize they have so much to offer as a mentor to the younger children.  Or the one that has been labelled as a ‘troublemaker’ at school because they feel they need to be ‘bad’ to be noticed – here they may be revered by the younger children and can be given extra responsibilities – something usually reserved for the ‘best’ children in a large classroom.

Here, eventually the school age children will stop lamenting that there is no exciting entertainment; no elaborate activities set up to amuse and enlighten them; too many things they can’t do because there are little children around. If they are ‘bored’ long enough they will discover that there are plenty of opportunities for them to demonstrate leadership, to make decisions, to offer advice, to show initiative and to be responsible – plenty of opportunities to grow up.


Active Play

I consider most of the children in my current group to be ‘active’. Now you’d think that, with so many news reports about childhood obesity and sedentary lifestyles, I would consider it good that these children are so active.  In reality though, there is a part of me that is so very tired of saying ‘walk in the house’, ‘keep your feet on the floor’, ‘that’s not meant for swinging on’, etc thousands of times every day.

You see, I prefer indirect guidance – using the environment to influence the behaviour of the children. During CBA observations and evaluations my understanding and use of indirect guidance was identified as one of my greatest strengths. I detest having to interrupt play to redirect behaviour.

I have the playroom arranged into five well defined areas with specific purpose for each area.  There are no long pathways that encourage running – the main play space is less than 200 square feet and there are plenty of obstacles.  I’m beginning to think the children view these obstacles as a challenge to be overcome – like in a video game where the goal is to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ in the least amount of time preferably without touching the ground.

Have I inadvertently encouraged these behaviours by providing activities like parkour?  We’ve discussed safety in detail and differentiated between appropriate indoor and outdoor activities. We have plenty of outdoor time every day.  Yesterday we were outside for two hours and they spent most of that time running and jumping.

I rotate the toys often so the children have new choices and don’t easily get bored.  I provide a mix of adult led and free play activities so they have the opportunity to participate in organized group activities and also to engage in activities that they initiate.  I schedule downtime for relaxing and enjoying quiet activities so they don’t become over stimulated.

I briefly – very briefly – considered turning on the TV because I know that would work.  There are several children in the group that I’m certain would become almost comatose in front of a TV screen but the ‘professional’ side of me can’t allow me to resort to that.

This has been such a long winter and I know I can’t wait for the opportunity to work in the garden.  I have absolutely no desire to do any paperwork no matter how important it is.  (Please note: if my coordinator is reading this – I am no where near ready for re-licensing).  The recent freeze, thaw, freeze cycle has created a glacier in my yard that threatens to never melt even if the weather does ever really warm up.

But we can smell it.

Spring break is here and summer is on the horizon.  We are excited and that excitement is so hard to contain in any environment.

Sorting, Organizing & Cleaning

When people visit my childcare home the most common comments centre on organization and cleaning up.  Many are amazed by how well the children demonstrate responsibility for putting away the toys and equipment.

How do I get them to do that?  Well, to be honest, my own obsessive compulsive tendencies may have something to do with it.  Most importantly though — I have consistent expectations, the children know them, they apply to everyone and I set the example.

Cleaning up can be fun – counting, matching, stacking, and sorting are all activities that the children willingly engage in throughout free play time.  I use these activities for cleaning too.

I’ve traced the tools hanging on the pegboard and the outlines let the children know when something is missing and what belongs there. Putting away the tools becomes like completing a puzzle. I have taken pictures of the shelves and taped the picture to the wall by each shelf.  These pictures are a guide for what belongs on that particular shelf.  The children use these pictures as a reference for a matching game.  The blocks and small toys in bins are sorted according to color, size or shape – more games!

Did you notice all the learning opportunities without any need for a worksheet?

Probably the most significant ‘rule’ is that throughout play time we put away things that are not being used. We don’t wait until clean-up time. If there is a toy on the floor – pick it up.  If you are switching to another activity – put it away the toys you don’t need anymore.  If the clutter doesn’t get out of control we don’t get overwhelmed by the prospect of cleaning it up.

There are no excuses — everyone is responsible for cleaning up. Saying “I didn’t use it” is simply an acknowledgement that you know a toy needs to be put away. Being bossy or tattling on others get responses like “Hmm, maybe they don’t know how – you could demonstrate.” or “Oh, you noticed a toy that isn’t where it belongs – where should you put it?”

Cleaning up is not a competition there are no rewards for ‘best, fastest or most’ – cooperation and collaboration are valued. ‘Missing’ toys provide an opportunity to discuss the importance of putting things away.  Items that are put where they belong will be easy to find when you need them.

At clean up time I guide and assist the youngest children. I follow them and prompt them to put away a few specific items and then accompany them out of the room.  The youngest are always the first to leave at clean-up partially so they don’t continue play/make a mess and partially so the oldest do more work. Growing up requires more responsibility – another learning opportunity.


If you ask any of the children here if they ever get put in time out at daycare they will probably say yes.   This bothers me because I really dislike the use of ‘time out’ as a form of guidance because as it is commonly used it really is simply a punishment – meant to hurt or reprimand without any chance of understanding the issue or learning from it.

For many, time out means ‘You’ve done something to anger/upset me/someone else so go to your room/seat/corner and think about what you’ve done’.  Really? No child I know is ever going to benefit from this.

Some children may spend this time thinking – that they are bad/useless/terrible no one wants to be around them and they need to suffer.  Many will spend this time festering in their anger – burying it away or redirecting it toward someone or something else. Some children have been through it so many times that it has become routine – they’ve rehearsed it and know exactly what to say/do to get parole.  None of these children are learning anything beneficial.

Here, time out is really time with me.  Maybe the child just needed a little time get away from the situation to cool down so we sit and I ask questions and listen.  Maybe the child is out of control – having a fit/meltdown – fine come to this safe area I’ll be here if you need me.  You can scream, cry and stomp if it makes you feel better but you can’t hurt anyone else.  When you’re ready you can talk to me and I will listen.   Whatever the reason that the child is away from the group they are not alone.  I am nearby – calm and available.  There are no lectures, no threats, and no judgements.

So, I started writing this entry with the intention of saying I don’t use time out.  I wanted to find a better name for it.  ‘Time In’?  ‘Reflecting time’?  Nothing I could come up with was going to work easily.  Saying ‘Time Out’ has become a habit for me and the children.  Then, I had a revelation – I’m not a sports fan but I know they use the term ‘time-out’ in many sports so I looked up their definition…

In sports, a time-out refers to a break in the match for a short amount of time to allow the coach to communicate with the team, determine strategy or inspire morale.

Hmmmm, maybe I do use time-out.