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Language and Literacy Series: Reclaiming the Joy of Reading in the Age of Distraction

Susan Magsamen is the Senior Vice President of Early Learning at global learning company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt She is a member of the Educational Advisory Board for The Goddard School and senior advisor to The Science of Learning Institute and Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University. This piece was originally published on HMH’s blog

My own love of reading was cultivated in an era with fewer distractions than today. At that time, all of our play was physical and concrete – we played with hands-on toys and games, we rode bicycles and played outside (which held opportunities for all sorts of mischief). I recall putting on plays, having visceral experiences with art supplies, some television, and boys readinglots of books. Reading offered both privacy and companionship, an opportunity to focus and contemplate, but also indulge the imagination.

I realize now that there was a special kind of innocence wrapped up in these memories. During my own childhood, distraction was the murmur of the radio or television, or the sight of something fleeting that simply “caught your eye.” Things are different today. Adults and children are caught in a blizzard of digital noise streaming from various devices that constantly compete for our attention, disrupting our focus. There is no doubt that this new reality has impacted the way we read and engage with books.

Daniel Goleman, a psychologist best known for spotlighting emotional intelligence, has noted that the deluge of distractions can have far-reaching effects. Speaking to KQED’s Forum, he explained “because attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, [and] we have more distractions than ever before, we have to be more focused on cultivating the skills of attention.”

According to Goleman, the neural circuitry that registers attention in the prefrontal cortex of the brain is identical to the circuits that govern executive functioning, which includes the ability to manage distressing emotions and to feel empathy.

Medical research has identified clinical conditions that may interfere with a child’s ability to focus, but to tackle real-world distractions, there are things we can do at home and in the classroom to minimize the noise and create an environment conducive to experiencing the magic of reading.

With this in mind, what can we do to foster a love of reading in our children that stems simply from the sheer pleasure and joy that a great story provides?

Here are five easy ways to create a distraction-free reading zone for kids.

  1. Create a Dedicated Reading Space: Create a reading environment free of clutter. The fewer objects that can capture your child’s attention, the better.
  2. Get Comfy: Have a comfortable chair or cushion for children and adult readers to sit on. The physical comfort helps kids relax their bodies, which in turn facilitates attention and focus.
  3. Start a Reading Ritual: Ritualize the opportunity to read. For very young children, the ritual of a bedtime story is the enchanting portico that leads to more reading. Consecrating the event early on acknowledges that reading time is special, even as children get older and read on their own. Having a special hat to wear or a pillow to sit on just for reading designates that reading time is distinct from other activities.
  4. Take Time to Share: Give your child ample opportunity to share what they have read. Remember, a joy shared is doubled! Ask some simple questions about your child’s reading experience to encourage engagement: Who was your favorite character? What did you like about the story? How did the book make you feel?
  5. Be a Reading Role Model: Model a love of reading. Whether you show your kids the stack of books on your night table, or point out how much you love to read the newspaper with your morning coffee, highlighting the ways that reading enriches your life will help them understand the importance and enjoyment of literacy.

It is important for adults to find some quiet space amidst the distractions as well. I heard a story the other day that offered a vivid reminder of this concept: A four-year-old girl learned how to make the color green in school, mixing yellow and blue paints to create a series of green hues. With carbonated excitement, she couldn’t wait to show her father. But when he came home, he was concentrating on his cell phone. He finished a call and then began to text. The child’s efforts to capture his attention were futile until, with her art work in one hand, she gave a good, hard tug on the leg of his pants. Her father then looked down and said, “Sara, what are you doing down there?” To which she replied, “Daddy, I live down here.”

To create an environment that is conducive to concentration, young children need our undivided attention. By finding and nurturing those simple moments of focus, we can enjoy “living” in our children’s worlds and be present as they share in ours.

Goddard School Children Evaluate Hottest Toys for Holiday Season

Preschoolers Across The Nation Participate In The 8th Annual Goddard School Preschooler-Approved Toy Test

KING OF PRUSSIA, PA – September 28, 2015Goddard Systems, Inc. (GSI), the national franchisor of The Goddard School® preschool system, one of the largest early childhood education organizations in the nation, is searching for the Top 10 Toys for children (infants to six years old) that encourage playful learning. Toy companies around the globe are participating for the chance to be voted #1 in the 8th annual Goddard School Preschooler-Approved Toy Test. Products are put to the test by true toy experts – children!Toy Test 2014 a

Every year, select Goddard Schools across the country hold the Preschooler-Approved Toy Test, where manufacturers are invited to submit toys for consideration. All entries are evaluated by The Goddard School Toy Testing Committee, which is comprised of early childhood education experts. This panel of educators evaluates entries based on various criteria including encouraging interactive, child-initiated play, inspiring creativity and collaboration, and supporting skill development and playful learning.

Toys scoring highest on the evaluation will be sent to 49 participating Goddard Schools nationwide to be tested by children from September 28 through October 2. The children will cast their votes for the Top 10 Preschooler-Approved Toys, and the toys will then be put to public vote on The Goddard School website from November 2 to November 13. GSI will purchase and donate 100 of the toy receiving the most votes to Toys for Tots, a program run by the United States Marine Corps Reserve that distributes holiday gifts to less fortunate children in the community.

“Our annual Toy Test is a powerful example of our education philosophy, which is centered on playful learning,” says GSI’s Vice President of Education, Dr. Craig Bach. “It also exemplifies ongoing efforts at The Goddard School to identify high-quality educational resources in collaboration with teachers and children.”

Bach continues, “Through the Toy Test, we provide children with an interactive and playful learning experience as they work together to evaluate a range of toys. In the process, the children continue to develop problem solving skills, the ability to collaborate with others, self-confidence, creativity and other valuable tools that will help them be successful in school and in life.” Past Preschooler-Approved Toy Test winners include brands such as K’NEX, Fat Brain Toys, Lakeshore Learning Materials, Green Toys and Learning Resources. For more information on The Goddard School and the Preschooler-Approved Toy Test, please visit www.goddardschool.com/toytest.

Ten Little Ways to Say I Love You

Telling your children you love them is one of the best things you can do as a parent, but showing your children you love them is also important. Here are ten ways to show you care.

  1. Write a note to your little one. It can be a simple note that says “I love you,” just something to let your child know you’re thinking about her. Put the note in her lunchbox, under her pillow or in a place where only she will look.Father and Son Hug
  2. Say yes to an unusual request. Did your child request donuts and ice cream for dinner? Does he want to wear his pajamas all day? Relax the rules occasionally.
  3. Keep a record. Recording your child’s early days in a baby book or journal can be a great way to remember all the wonderful little things he does. You can also share this keepsake with him when he’s older.
  4. Listen to her stories. Stop what you’re doing and listen to her recap her day or a recount a game she played with a friend. This simple gesture helps you stay connected with your child.
  5. Ask questions. When your child talks to you, engage her and ask follow-up questions. Creating a dialogue can show her that you’re truly interested in her world and what she has to say.
  6. Share your stories. Your child is just as curious about you as you are about him. Talk to him about what you did for fun when you were his age, or tell him about your first day of school.
  7. Ask her to play her favorite songs. If you’re in the car or at home, ask your child which songs she would like to hear, why she likes that particular type of music or where she first heard the songs. This is a fun, easy way to find out what makes her tick while showing her that you’re interested.
  8. Start a daily tradition. Read a story at bedtime, have an after-school chat or play a game every day to ensure that you two have a special bonding time.
  9. Display her doodles and drawings. Your child pours her heart into every piece of artwork she makes. Hanging up these creations at home or in your office can encourage her creativity while showing your child how important she is to you.
  10. Show him how to do things. If your child wants to know how to bake cookies, teach him. If he asks how to inflate a bike tire, walk him through the process. Your child will remember and cherish those lessons.

Citizenship Day

Citizenship Day is September 17. You can use creative ideas and activities to celebrate the signing of the United States Constitution in 1787 and help your children understand what being a good citizen means.

  • Talk about the definition of good citizenship or illustrate good citizenship with images or books;
  • Share stories about exhibiting good citizenship. These might include stories about welcoming a classmate to the classroom, helping to recycle, donating their unused clothes and toys to charity or cleaning up a neighborhood park;
  • Seek out opportunities to experience civic events with your child. Go to hear a local politician speak, attend an event or fundraiser that your local fire department or police department holds, etc.;
  • Talk about the American flag, what it means to us as citizens and how we are supposed to care for and display it;
  • Find volunteer opportunities that allow you to participate as a family.

Positive Solutions for Discipline

Guest Post
by Patricia Zauflik, M.Ed

Knowing your child’s abilities and limitations is extremely important. Expecting too much or too little can be frustrating for you and your child, so try to keep your expectations realistic! Use logical consequences when disciplining your children. Logical consequences are an alternative to punishment, and they need to be practical and consistently enforced. These consequences help children learn how they are expected to behave. For example, you might remove an item a child throws at a sibling, or if two siblings are fighting, you could send them to separate rooms to play. The children lose the privilege of playing with an item or with each other!

Try to plan ahead and anticipate what your children may do or need in various situations. Plan to set your children up for a successful experience. Hope for the best, but always have a backup plan. Boy

Most children are not born with a built-in ability to make decisions and accept the consequences. Learning to take responsibility for their actions requires lots of support and practice. A good way to help your children develop these skills is to offer limited, reasonable choices throughout the day, such as when your children are dressing, having a bath, eating snacks, watching TV, cleaning up and getting ready for bedtime. For example, you could ask, “Do you want to wear the red shirt or blue shirt to school tomorrow?” or “Do you want one minute or two minutes to finish playing before getting ready for your bath?”

Another strategy is to use first-then statements. A first-then statement tells your children what they need to do before doing something that they want to do. For example, you might say, “First put on your shoes, and then you can go outside,” or “First clean up your toys, and then you can have a snack.”

Redirection can also provide guidance to children and prevent them from misbehaving. By interrupting a challenging behavior and physically or verbally redirecting your child to another activity, you can engage your child in a more appropriate practice. For example, if your child is playing in the sink and splashing water all over the bathroom, you may choose to gently move the child away from the sink and toward the toys in your child’s room, or you could verbally distract the child and provide an alternate activity. For example, you might say, “Let’s go upstairs and read one of your new library books.”

Remember to give your child specific, positive attention for the behaviors you want to see and teach your child what to do!

Hungry Minds: How Curiosity Drives Young Learners

Susan Magsamen is the Senior Vice President of Early Learning at global learning company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt She is a member of the Educational Advisory Board for the Goddard School and senior advisor to The Science of Learning Institute and Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University.  This piece was originally published on HMH’s blog.

“Curiouser and Curiouser” cried Alice after she ate the cake, and then suddenly shot up in height “like the largest telescope, ever! Good-bye feet” she exclaimed!

For some children, that iconic scene, shortly after Alice lands in Wonderland, is their introduction to the term “curiosity.”  But for us — well, take a moment and see what comes to mind when you consider curiosity…

I recently did a random “man on the street” survey, asking for single-word responses, and found that people associate curiosity with many things. I heard the words necessary, intelligent, spark, engaged, open-minded, open-ended, creative detective, and seeker.

Personally, I’ve been consumed with curiosity for decades, believing that it is the secret sauce to learning and to a fulfilling life.  So what is curiosity?

Einstein’s comment, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious,” provokes even more questions:  Is curiosity a skill or a talent? Is it innate or learned? Can it be taught or cultivated? How does it shape how we learn, especially early learners? What is the primary role of curiosity?

Regardless of how curious we are about curiosity, it is difficult to study. However, contemporary neuroscience has revealed some insights.  In a study published in the October issue of the journal Neuron, psychologist and researcher Charan Ranganath at the University of California, Davis explains that the dopamine circuit in the hippocampus registers curiosity.

“There’s this basic circuit in the brain that energizes people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding,” Ranganath explains. “This circuit lights up when we get money, or candy. It also lights up when we’re curious.” When the circuit is activated, our brains release dopamine, which gives us a high. “The dopamine also seems to play a role in enhancing the connections between the cells that are involved in learning.”

Ranganath’s research, covered in this fascinating piece in Mindshift, gives us a working definition of curiosity, as an intrinsic motivation to learn. It also presents us with an exciting challenge – how can we create learning environments and experiences that will engage young children and ignite their innate curiosity?

The early years are a window of opportunity for parents, caregivers and communities to encourage curiosity. And it really matters. Curiosity increases knowledge and knowledge makes learning easier.

Nurturing curiosity in ourselves and in young children is easy to do. Here are my top ten ideas for the home and the classroom:

  • Slow down: In an age of immediacy, slow things down and encourage discovery. “I am curious about,” or “just out of curiosity” are great conversation starters.
  • Don’t have all the answers: Declaring you don’t know something, but that you want to find out together is an invitation for curiosity.
  • Put kids in the driver’s seat: In classroom activities or at home, let kids make decisions – this leads to uncertainty quickly and will encourage exploration.
  • Get real: Curiosity can’t be nurtured in the abstract – it’s messy.  Get kids investigating a topic or solving a mystery.
  • Delve deep: Hold your own Boring Conference in class – it’s a fantastic one-day celebration of the obvious and the overlooked, subjects that become absolutely  fascinating when examined more closely.
  • Encouragement matters: Acknowledge a question by saying “That is a wonderful or interesting question.”
  • Talk shop: What, why, how? Let kids explore how things are made. “How Things Work” is a great example.
  • Identify role models: Curiosity is also highly contagious.  If you set the example for being curious you will be amazed at how the world changes. Also, seek out others doing interesting things.  Chances are they are using their curious natures to guide them.
  • Practice: Make a list of things you want to know more about and carve out a little time to explore.

As for curiosity being the secret for lifelong learning in the 21st century, the “New York Times” magazine recently profiled productive people from various fields, including politics, art and science, who were 80+ years old. When asked by the “New York Times” what kept him intuitive, architect Frank Gehry, still going strong at 85, said “…. stay curious about everything.”

Quick and Healthy Snack Ideas

Spruce up snack time with these fast, easy, healthy and delicious snack ideas!

Lil’ Dippers


  • An apple
  • Any kind of nut butter
  • Crushed peanuts or sliced almonds

Cut the apple into wedges. Then stick a toothpick in each piece, dip in nut butter and sprinkle with peanuts or almonds.

Top O’ the Graham


  • Non-fat yogurt (any flavor)
  • Graham crackers
  • Banana slices
  • Dried cranberries

Spread a spoonful of yogurt on a graham cracker. Top with banana slices and dried cranberries.

Fishing for Crackers


  • Carrot sticks
  • A bowl of hummus or veggie dip
  • Goldfish crackers

Dunk the carrots into the hummus or dip. Then put some goldfish crackers on a plate and use the carrot stick to “catch” the crackers.

Preschool: More than simply childcare

by Michael Petrucelli, on-site owner of The Goddard School located in Darien, IL
As seen in Suburban Life Magazine

There are many benefits to children attending preschool; two of the most important being: the nurturing of a life-long love of learning, and the development of important social and life skills that we all need to successfully navigate in the world around us.Children%20with%20Teacher_jpg

Childcare centers or preschools (the differences to be explained) are an option for working parents who need care for their children while they go to work, or for any parent seeking a group atmosphere for their children. Childcare centers and preschools may accept infants and toddlers, along with children 3-5 year olds, for part or full time programs.

What separates a top quality preschool from a childcare center?

A top quality preschool will provide: well-trained teachers, age and developmentally appropriate curriculum that prepares children for kindergarten and beyond, stimulating activities for children that will hopefully develop a life-long love of learning, a setting that allows each child to grow and gain confidence as the unique individual they are, and a dynamic environment that helps in the development of important social and life skills.

A quality preschool should provide a basis for academic learning, but even more important is helping to develop a passion for learning. School should be about making learning fun. Young children learn best by engaging in activities they find interesting, such as story time, playing with blocks or drawing. Children may listen to and interact with stories and songs – building blocks needed to grasp phonics and reading skills when it is developmentally appropriate. Play-based learning such as hands-on activities with water, sand, and containers, form the foundation for understanding some basic math concepts. Matching, sequencing, one-to-one correspondence all are activities that are done over and over in preschool settings and help children get ready for kindergarten and beyond. Puzzles, and games like “I-Spy” and chess help develop critical thinking, along with analytical and reasoning skills. It also helps children to understand that “doing your best” is important, and that not everyone wins all the time. Watching and collaborating with other children on the playground, or while working on a classroom task is also an important part of a learning process.

A quality preschool will also provide the opportunity for children to learn and interact in a group, to learn and interact with a classmate(s) in smaller groups, and to learn as individuals. Some simple but important life skills that can be developed by interacting with other children include: learning how to wait, how to take turns, how to listen and follow directions, collaboration, compromise, sharing, empathy and respect for others, advocating for one’s-self, and conflict resolution. Preschool also provides a place where your child can gain a sense of confidence while exploring, learning about new
topics, and playing with his or her peers. Children in a quality preschool will develop a healthy sense of independence; discovering that they are capable and can do things for themselves – from small tasks like pouring their own juice, to working on bigger issues like making decisions about how to spend their free time or who to partner with on a particular classroom project.

Whether you “need” “childcare” or not, every child can benefit from a quality preschool experience, where learning should be fun, and can help foster a life-long love for it. A quality preschool experience also will help children in developing important social and life skills that every child needs to reach his or her fullest potential in the life ahead.

Five Benefits of Teaching Children to Garden

Break out the seeds and bulbs because gardening season has arrived! Here are five benefits of showing your children how to garden.

  1. Gets children outside and active. Digging, planting and watering on a sunny afternoon are _72O8441_terrific ways to get some exercise while enjoying the beautiful weather.
  2. Children learn about science and the environment. This is an excellent opportunity to teach your child some basics of biology, such as how the sun helps plants to grow, how plants produce oxygen through photosynthesis and how vegetation contributes to a healthy environment.
  3. Teaches children how vegetables and fruits grow. Growing fruits and vegetables gives your child a look into small-scale farming and may encourage an appreciation for the process that brings produce to grocery stores.
  4. Encourages healthy eating. Planting a vegetable garden can lead to healthier meal times because children are more likely to try vegetables they have grown and veggies usually taste better when they are fresh from the garden.
  5. Inspires responsibility and a strong work ethic. Maintaining a garden can help children understand what the rewards of hard work are and how taking care of something requires diligence and persistence.

Language and Literacy Series: Talking with our Hands – A Hidden Key to Learning!

Susan Magsamen is the Senior Vice President of Early Learning at global learning company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt She is a member of the Educational Advisory Board for the Goddard School and senior advisor to The Science of Learning Institute and Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University.  This piece was originally published on HMH’s blog.

It just amazes me the way newborn babies come into the world as natural communicators. After their first wail, they exhibit an increasing variety of gestures and sounds; quickly becoming full-bodied, kinesthetic communicators, successfully letting us know their needs and desires through a barrage of gestures and gesticulations.

Throughout his/her early growth spurts, a young child’s gesture vocabulary expands in complex and Handsfascinating ways.  Children begin with what is called deictic gestures (pointing at actual objects), and metaphoric gestures (movements in space to represent an abstract idea, such as gesturing upward to indicate “high”).  Then, as their use of language and vocabulary become more fluid, they begin to slowly connect words to objects and abstract thoughts.  Little ones form a fully integrated relationship between gestures and words as they grow from toddlers to preschoolers. This relationship with language will continue to be refined throughout life.

Recent research in language acquisition has revealed just how important gestures are in supporting word acquisition, as well as in other learning areas, including math.  The Goldin-Meadow Laboratory at the University of Chicago, headed by Susan Goldin-Meadow, is an important research hub for the exploration of the role and value of gestures. The lab focuses on topics related to cognition, development, education and linguistics, including the study of non-verbal communication, like gestures.

In a 2011 TexXUChicago TED Talk, Goldin-Meadow makes the case that gestures not only reveal what is on a child’s mind, but can also help change a child’s mind in order to support instruction and learning. This exciting discovery reinforces and supports our innate impulse to use gesture as a way to convey meaning.

Families can play an active role in word recognition and vocabulary skills simply by incorporating gestures, creative movement and meaningful play experiences into a child’s world, whether at home or on the go! Here are five easy activities that use gesture to generate vocabulary practice and boost literacy skills over time.

  1. Trust your instincts: Use your own hands to gesture with your children.  It’s not clowning around, it’s communicating! And nothing works better than modeling.
  2. Words and actions go together: When reading, encourage your child to point to images and identify them not only with words and sounds, but also by making shapes with their hands/bodies.
  3. Sing along: When in the car, play simple songs that encourage children to use gesture and movement. There are a ton of great silly songs – remember “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”?
  4. Play: Encourage make-believe play where kids are given the opportunity to pretend and act out ideas.
  5. Practice: Try ‘Simon Says’ using gestures.  Practice is fun and it reinforces word and object recognition.

Whether you start with simple hand gestures or animated body language, by incorporating these elements into play and daily routine, you’ll be supporting your child’s literacy growth right in your own home!

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