Category Archives: Ask Me

Talking to Young Children About Death

As much as we don’t really like to think about it, death is something that touches each of us at some point in our lives.  And often it touches not only our own lives, but the lives of the little ones we love and teach.

I received an email over the weekend from a supervisor at a children’s center that broke my heart.  Two little children at her center, twin girls, had recently lost their father.  Obviously, these girls and their family were grieving, but the tragedy also touched the larger community and left many of the parents and teachers wondering how to explain such an emotional and somewhat abstract concept to young children.  I replied to the email right away, and soon after realized that what I had written would not only benefit the children and families of that center, but might also be useful to others who may be struggling with the same dilemma.

Talking about death isn’t always sparked by a traumatic experience.  Some children may simply ask about it after hearing a story, or seeing an animal on the side of the road.  Children in a situation like the one I mentioned above, who are aware of the tragedy, but perhaps not really directly impacted by it are still going to try to make sense of it all.  Whatever the event, children will likely have some natural curiosities (What does it mean to die?  Can people come back to life?  What makes a person die?), some emotional insecurities (Will my dad die too?  Will I die?  Did I do something to make these grown-ups sad?), and a need for expression.  
Children need their questions to be answered directly and honestly.  Avoid abstract or symbolic terms.  Using terms like “went to sleep” or “went away on a trip” can cause children to be afraid of these things.  Likewise, if we oversimplify how the person died, they may be afraid that they may cause someone’s death or die themselves from simple things like being mean, getting sick, or having a hurt.  Sometimes the most direct explanation is that the person’s body stopped working and that it was something doctors couldn’t fix.  Talking in families is particularly important because it allows for personal and religious beliefs to be included in these discussions. 
When my husband’s sister died of cancer and our boys were very small, I explained to my oldest son (who was about three) that her body wouldn’t work anymore and that her spirit, the part that made her eyes look happy, and her face smile, and the part that loved him and that he loved was with God, but that her body that he could see was in a special kind of box called a casket that was put in the ground at the cemetery because her spirit didn’t need it.  That’s an explanation that’s in keeping with my family’s own beliefs.  (It’s important not to compare the casket to a bed because that again can cause fears of sleeping or beds.  If children show concern, it may also be important to clarify that the body in the ground can’t feel or hurt or get hungry or cold.)
Beyond the general curiosity, children want to be reassured that their loved ones or they themselves won’t die too.  This isn’t really possible to do, but when they ask, I explain to my boys that we do a lot of things to help make sure we can live as long as we can.  I know I can’t promise that death won’t happen, but they find security when I point out what we do to prevent that from happening the best we can.  Kids struggling with loss may need more time and attention from their parents or more consistency in their routines to help them feel secure.
Children may also feel worried about the adults they love who seem so sad.  It’s OK for them to see you sad and for you to talk about how you’re feeling and why.  It gives them permission to do the same.  Along with that, it’s good for them to see how you deal with those feelings in healthy ways.  Children may act silly or sweet to try to cheer up the people around them.  Others may act out as a way to work through their feelings or to check in and make sure that you’ll still attend to them.
When kids are given something new to process, they often need an outlet for that expression to help them organize their understanding and work through their experiences and feelings.  For some that means talking about death in general, drawing pictures, telling stories about death, or acting it out in their play scenarios.  This shouldn’t be discouraged, it’s how they make sense of the experience and one way they can control something that they can’t control in real life. 

As an example, when 9/11 occurred, I was teaching in a preschool where some of the children went through a period of building block structures and knocking them over with a block representing an airplane.  Observe children in these activities and watch to see what the salient aspects of the experience are for them.
Some children simply continue on as though nothing has changed.  They may not be as aware of what’s going on, they may have already come to grips with things, or they may simply find more comfort in keeping their regular routine as a way to combat the change around them. 

Know too, that some may seem uninterested and then bring up the experience months or even years later.  Address it as it comes.  Neither discourage or force a child to go through any of these processes.  Simply let them know through your responses that their questions will be answered honestly and their feelings will be validated and respected and they’ll continue to come to you when they need it.

How do you talk to young children about death?

Top photo by Peter Björknäs.
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It’s First Friday!

Well here it is!  There were so many great questions and so little time!  I’ve supplemented with some links below.  Please add your links and input in the comment section as well!

(By the way, on my computer the video seems a bit smoother over at YouTube for some reason.  It won’t hurt my feelings if you watch it there– just promise to come back and join in the discussion!)

On-Task Behavior and Developmentally Appropriate Practice (0:10)

As a parent, how do I know what is DAP in my child’s various classrooms? (1:27)

Resources for Developmentally Appropriate Practice:

Basics of Developmentally Appropriate Practice by Carol Copple and Sue Bredekamp

DAP Statements from NAEYC

DAP: What Does it Meant to Use Developmentally Appropriate Practice (From right here at NJC!)

Should food be used as sensory or art medium? (4:22)

Letter of the Week Dilemma (8:33)

Why Don’t You Teach Reading?  A Look at Emergent Literacy

A Culture of Literacy: Teaching Preschoolers the ABC’s and More  (More articles linked there.)

Preschool Tattle-Tells (10:23)

How do I stay consistent with my child’s behavior when I know it’s caused by physical factors? (11:50)

Parenting with Positive Guidance: Building Discipline from the Inside Out

Children and Nature  (14:01)

Why Our Children Need Nature

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv


Children & Nature Network

The Grass Stain Guru

Add your links and tips below as well!  And keep those First Friday Questions coming to, with Q&A in the subject line!
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A Few Reminders!

First off, Happy Birthday to Dr. Seuss!  On Monday, I posted some links to great ideas around the web, and just have to add one more to Steph over at Modern Parents, Messy Kids.  If you can’t find a fun way to celebrate today and the man who forever changed reading for children, it wasn’t because you didn’t get enough help!

Secondly, First Friday is right around the corner!  I’m really excited about the questions that have been submitted, and want you to be too, so I’m giving you a little teaser!  So here are a few of the topics I’ll be addressing:

  • Food in Sensory Tables and Art Projects
  • The Letter of the Week Approach
  • Developmentally Appropriate Practice
  • Tattle-Telling
  • And More!

I have really loved reading your emails and getting a sneak peek into your lives and the ways you are applying the information here.  If you have more questions (and I hope that you do) keep sending them to and put Q&A in the subject line.  If I can’t fit it into this month’s video, I’ll slide it over to April’s First Friday.

Last of all, I have to give a big “thank you” to Christie Burnett at Childhood 101 for her review of my E-book, Parenting with Positive Guidance.  I love reading Christie’s blog!  It’s crazy to find someone on the other side of the world, and feel like maybe you were cut from the same cloth.  I’m so honored by what she had to say about the book, and would love to accept her invitation for a cozy chat if either one of us ever ventures across the International Date Line!

See you back here for First Friday Q&A!

Top photo by Julia Freeman-Woolpert.
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Introducing First Friday Q&A

Are you with me?  I’m excited to find out what’s on your mind!

Send questions for the First Friday Q&A to  with “Q&A” in the subject line.  Questions will be answered on the first Friday in March!

(If you’re having trouble seeing the video from an emailed version of this post, go to the post on the actual site to view the video in all its amateur glory!)
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How to Spot a High Quality Play-Based Preschool

It’s January, and in many families that means time to register for preschool.  I’ve had several readers email me describing the overwhelming task of selecting a quality preschool, and asking for my suggestions.  So I’ve assembled a list here of what I would look for in a quality play-based preschool.  This is my dream list, and you have to realize that there are some great programs that won’t have every component I list here.  You have to be aware of what your priorities are and what you’re willing to live without or make up for at home. 


Free Play.   I would want to see about one hour of a part day program devoted to free play.  This doesn’t mean everyone in the classroom is running around screaming.  This means the children get to choose from a variety of planned and prepared activity areas (discussed below) that they can engage in with little direction from teachers.  (Notice I said “little direction” not “little interaction.  More on that later too.)  This format provides for more valuable social interactions, allows children to be inquisitive and follow their interests at their individual paces, while also teaching children to plan and organize their time.

Large Group.  A smaller portion of the day would be spent in a large group setting where all of the children meet together for group games, music and movement, fingerplays, stories, group discussions, or active and appropriate mini-lessons.

Small Groups.   Time would also ideally allow for children to be divided into smaller groups for book activities, cooking opportunities, or other projects that require more individualized attention.

Snack.  I like to see a snack in the structure, not just because I like food, but because there is a lot that can be taught about social skills in that setting.  A little food along the way also helps to keep little bodies on an even keel.


The preschool room would be inviting, print-rich, and child-centered.  Get down on your child’s level and see it through her eyes.  Can you see the decorations?  Can you reach the supplies?  The room should be arranged in a way that invites your child to participate, and teachers should be able to identify the developmental objectives of each activity.

These are the activity areas I would look for in an ideal room:

Dramatic Play. This is the dress-up area.  Ideally the props and themes would change from time to time.  Language and social skills are strengthened here, along with problem-solving and symbolic thinking (critical for reading and other academic endeavors).

Art.  Along with an easel, it’s ideal to see a table in an area that encourages creative art.  Supplies may be organized as to be available every day, but ideally the media would change from time to time.  I would hope to see more arts than crafts here.

Sensory.  Whether it’s a homemade sensory bin or a high-end water table, I’d like to see an area where children can explore a variety of sensory media.

Blocks/Construction/Large Motor.  A large open area should be available for block play where children might build with unit blocks as well as a variety of other construction sets like marble tracks, pipes, or tracks.  This large open area would also be used for large motor movement activities like obstacle courses or music and movement activities.  (Of course it could be so ideal that they have both in two separate spaces! :0)

Small Manip.  One area would ideally be devoted for manipulatives that promote fine motor development.  This is the place for puzzles, lacing beads, peg boards, and small blocks like Legos.

Writing Area.  To encourage literacy, there would be an area of the room with writing supplies (notebooks, clipboards, pencils, crayons, envelopes, etc.) available to the children at any time.  Additional writing supplies would be integrated into other areas as props, lists, or sign-up sheets.

Book Shelf.  There should be a book shelf in the room that visually calls the children to come and read.  The area would ideally include soft areas for the children to plop down with a book.  In my ideal scenario, children would be read to in a variety of settings throughout the day: whole group, small group, one-on-one in free choice time, or simply browsing independently.

Outside.  In my perfect world, every preschool program has a devoted outside area for the children (which is offered as part of free choice and also integrated into other planned activities.)  This area would be safe, but also with natural rough edges.  Fancy slides and play equipment are nice, but I’d trade it for a big sandbox, gardens, trees, and bushes. 


I would hope to observe teacher interactions in the classroom.  Teachers would be interacting with children (not just other teachers) during free choice time, questioning, rephrasing, and challenging the children, not just directing or reprimanding them.  I would watch for signs of rapport with the children: getting down on their level to make eye-contact, appropriate touch, enthusiasm, positive guidance, and a passion for what they do, as well as a positive response from the children.  In a perfect world, a preschool class would maintain a teacher to child ratio of one teacher per four or five children.  I would want to know that the teachers were well-trained and that the staff had a low turnover rate. 


If I had the chance to ask questions during an orientation or a visit with the director, in addition to any questions about what I’ve already written above, I’d ask:

What type of communication can I expect? (I’d hope not only for an open-door policy and open communication, but also for newsletters that tell about what’s going on and what’s being learned, not just when I need to pay and when the next parent event is.)

What is your philosophy about play and academics?  (I think I’ve made my own opinion clear here.)

What do you do to encourage developmentally appropriate practice?  (If the director is unfamiliar with this term, I’d be pretty nervous.)

How do you deal with behavior issues?  (I’d be hoping for some positive guidance techniques of course.)

What can I do to help in this program?  (I want a program that sees me as a partner, not just a bus driver with a tuition check.)

You’ll want to spend some time thinking about other questions that pertain specifically to your own child’s needs.  It’s also a good idea to connect with other parents who have or have had children in the program.  (You can ask the director for references.)  Parents will give you a different perspective than directors and teachers.

What I’ve described here is my ideal.  Keep in mind that you may not find everything in one program.  Decide which things are deal breakers and which ones you can compensate for.  Each child is different, and responds differently to different details.  In the end, you have to go with your gut.

What would you add to my lengthy list?  What do you look for?

Photos by Anissa Thompson.
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Age Does Matter: Your Questions Answered by Dr. Marcy Guddemi


On the first of this month, I wrote a post about The Gesell Institute of Human Development and their recent study, asserting that the progression of healthy child development has not changed over the past 70 years, in spite of the fact that our expectations of them have.  (You can read the full post here.)

Dr. Marcy Guddemi, Executive Director of the institute, agreed to answer your questions in regards to that post and the study itself.  Several people had similar questions, so I took the comments and created a list of composite questions, which Dr. Guddemi has so kindly answered.  (My personal favorite response is #6.  Just in case you were wondering.) 

 1.”I am especially concerned about the young children who speak home languages other than English. If English-speaking children are being rushed and pushed by developmentally inappropriate methods and content, then what chance do dual language learners have to jump in and catch up? When you consider that as many as 25% of preschool age children in this country may be DLLs, the difference between what they need in preschool and what they are getting is a service gap of great significance. I believe that as the level of diversity grows, the need to return to developmentally appropriate practices becomes even more critical.” – Karen Nemeth

How could you connect this study to the application of DAP and meeting the needs of children who are dual language learners?

Our study clearly shows where a child is on that developmental pathway that all children proceed on as he/she learns and grows—thus leading the teacher to be able to personalize and adapt the curriculum to meet the developmental needs of that child. 

2. “Are there any connections you can see between your findings regarding DAP and after-school over scheduling?” – Emily @ Random Recycling

 There is no clear connection, but if afterschool over-scheduling is more of the same inappropriate things we see in our classrooms, we must stand back and stop this craziness.  Children need time to play spontaneously for large uninterrupted blocks of time (45-90 minutes) without a teacher or an adult directing their every move.

3.  “I have a question; Is there any ongoing research in regards to pushing kids developmental to enter school earlier and earlier and the high rate of ADHD diagnosis?” -Mona

I believe there is a clear relationship between over diagnosing ADHD and children being expected to perform tasks that they are not ready for developmentally.  We will have to look for more research in this area, but I do remember seeing a study just recently on this topic. (*For those who are interested, you may want to read these articles here, and here and consider the increasing expectations for these young children.) 

4. “How does the Gesell research compare to research done in other countries that widely embrace a play-based early childhood curriculum? How does the U.S. match up in things like crime rate and test scores?” – Sarah 

I believe our research support what other countries are doing—waiting until age 7 to start formal instruction of reading!  Other countries do a better job at respecting the unique needs of the child under age 8.

5. Can you talk a bit more about “splinter skills”?  How do performance and proficiency differ?  If children seem to “rise to the occasion” why shouldn’t we capitalize on that? 

The problem with splinter skills or “performances” is that it is not REAL learning.  Real learning happens when brain cells are connected to build meaning for the child.  When a child memorizes a splinter skill with no  brain connection, it is quickly forgotten—like cramming for a test!  What a waste of time for the child when they could be developing real meaning that will stay with them and also be the foundation for more and more difficult and challenging learning!

6. What is your response to people who reject your study, saying their children did learn to read at 4 and have been successful ever since? 

Some children do learn to read at 4.  But not all children CAN learn to read at four.  Walking is another example.  Some children learn to walk at  9 mo but no one can teach all 9 mo old babies to walk!!  Our research supports that fact that we must respect developmental differences.  Early walkers are not better walkers than later walkers, and research shows us that early readers have no advantage over later readers by the end of third grade.  Each child is different!  Gesell Institute wants each child to be respected and supported in the type of learning that is right for where the child is developmentally.

7. (This was a continual theme in questions that were asked and discussions that were had.)   How do you balance what you know is right for kids with what you know will be expected of them? I know many parents choosing preschools struggle because they know that the play-based preschool is the most appropriate choice, but they also realize the frustration their children will face in kindergarten.  It’s tempting to find those “preparatory” type preschools in the hopes of mitigating the kindergarten frustration.  Likewise, preschool teachers who are well-versed in DAP, who know what will be expected of their students the following year, struggle with deciding whether or not to introduce concepts they don’t feel are age-appropriate, hoping to keep their students from struggling the following year.  What can be done?  What can we do as parents and as teachers if we don’t agree with the push-down curriculum, but it is in full force in our children’s schools? 

We need to be strong advocates for our children!  We need to demand appropriate curriculum and policy in our public and private schools.  Parents need to be active participants in the PTA’s, meet with the principal,  speak and write letters to their legislators.  Visit your child’s classroom and spend the whole day there.  Know the facts.  Knowledge is power.  Do not allow your child to become merely a test score.  Also bombard the principals, etc. with research papers!  The Alliance for Childhood’s “Crisis in the Kindergarten” is an excellent example.  (Summary and recommendations here.)

Thank you so much to Dr. Marcy Guddemi for agreeing to field our questions.  And thank you also to all for your input and interest.  Let’s keep this conversation going!

Top photo by Aron Kremer.
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Bibliomaniacs Beware!

I feel I need to confess my addiction.  I am a bibliomaniac.  In spite of the fact that I have a library card, which gives me access to plenty of wonderful books, and which I enjoy using regularly, I still find the need to OWN them.  I just love books!  It doesn’t help that my husband feels the same way.  Who’s going to put on the brakes? 

In our home library we have one side of shelves filled with children’s picture books (largely my doing), and another side filled with a mixture of leather-bound literary greats, biographies of historical figures, and Tom Clancy-type novels (all my husband’s forte).  Of course between those two collections there is also a smattering of how-to’s, neighborhood book club favorites, and of course a bit of Calvin and Hobbes.  We just love books around here!  I feel like it’s a justifiable guilty pleasure.

So with all that said, I hope you appreciate the hazard of what I’m about to do.  A friend of mine asked if I could find a list of the 100 books you should read to your preschooler and post it here.  I agreed to do it, but I hope you know that because of that, I’ve discovered about 20 fantastic books that I don’t own, and now feel the compulsive need to find them!  (So while you’re perusing the list, I’ll probably be over at!)

I found my favorite 100s list at Children’s Book Guide, complete with cover shots, summaries, and individual links to amazon.

Reading Rockets also has several other lists, including Caldecott and Newberry winners and the most notable books for the years 2010 and 2009.  (I’m afraid to even look at them!)

What do you think?  Was there a book on the top 100 list that brought back memories of sitting “criss-cross-applesauce” on the reading rug of your first-grade classroom?  What book did you not find on the list that you would definitely have in your personal top 100?  Go ahead.  I already want 20 more books.  What’s another 10?

Top photo by Horton Group.

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