While the primary training of a childcare professional appropriately focuses on the safety and education of young children, often too little attention is paid to the role of parents and family members—both as active participants and as part of the daily curriculum—in the early childhood classroom. After all, often the very reason that children are being cared for outside the home is because parents are at work (and therefore busy) or desire an outside social and learning experience for their children. However, it is critical to remember that parents are the “experts” on their own children and their presence, personally and through daily play and projects, should be viewed as a critical part of a child’s success. It is very important that families take a central role, and this can be encouraged by the attitude of the childcare professional and the curriculum used in the classroom.
Parents and guardians are often invited to take an active role in planning field trips, coordinating and gathering information for projects, volunteering in classrooms, and participating in an advisory capacity on boards or committees. Here are some other ideas you can easily incorporate into your program to bring the family into the classroom—both directly and through activities that allow children to think about their families frequently throughout the day.
Create a family-friendly environment! Simple additions like extra coat hooks and chairs, a message board, or a special area for family members to settle in and play with or read to a child offer obvious signs of welcome. Let parents know that their presence is expected and appreciated by showing them where books, craft items and toys are stored so they can participate spontaneously.
Communicate! Newsletters, emails, weekly notes, parent-teacher conferences, and daily conversations will keep parents connected to the classroom and the progress of their children. Teachers and parents should strive at all times to stay connected with one another, sharing any concerns or celebrating any successes the children experience.
Invite family members directly into the classroom to share hobbies, cultural traditions, special recipes, family pets, etc. This is not only a wonderful opportunity for the young child to see and take pride in her own family, and a terrific learning experience for the other children in your care, but it also tells families that their unique stories are appreciated and valued in the classroom.
Establish volunteer and social opportunities for families who have rigid work hours: after-work pot-lucks, craft preparation (which might include cutting or assembling), gardening, painting, fundraising, etc. Be creative and flexible. Don’t assume that a parent who is always in a hurry or barely makes it in on time for pickup is not interested in your program. Offer him a chance to help or socialize outside of business hours.
During the day you can also bring a child’s attention to her family and her place within it by the discussions and projects that you undertake in the classroom. Here are just of few of countless ways you can get started:
Make a collage! Allow children to cut (or choose pre-cut) and paste pictures of activities their families enjoy, pets that resemble their own, etc. to create a special collage. This will encourage a child to not only think about his family but also relate it to the bigger world. You might also try a collage using the traced and cut-out hands of family members. Help the children label the hands and then join them together, creating a beautiful visual tribute to the families in your care/classroom.
Help children create a family tree. For very young children, this “tree” might simply be naming everyone in their immediate households and the others who are special to them—including pets, imaginary friends, and toys! A preschooler might enjoy the challenge of exploring another generation or two and including aunts, uncles, and cousins. Keep the tree simple and uncluttered and refer back to it frequently as a source of discussion. Update the trees with the births of siblings and cousins as the children share family news.
Using a small box or container covered in pretty paper, help each child craft a photo box with images of his home and family. This “family box” can be used to help soothe a child in need of comfort or as a tool to launch discussions specific to the child’s home interests.
Read good books! There are many, many excellent children’s books that affirm the diversity of today’s families. Recognize when choosing reading material that not every child may live in a traditional household, and make sure that your library reflects this. Choose books that represent a range of family types, including children living with grandparents or single heads of household, interracial families, foster families, etc. Be sensitive to family variety with any classroom project you undertake, but know that books give you a special opportunity to legitimize and support all families.
Helping the children in your program acknowledge and celebrate differences and similarities among families will help them create self-esteem, confidence, and healthy self-identity. So take the time to get to know your families. It will be a wonderful learning experience for everyone!
Kathreen Francis is a Legislative Aide in the Michigan State Senate with a special policy interest in 0-5 learning and K-12 Educational/Funding issues. She is also the parent of four active children.