Learning Through Play, Lesson Planning

It’s Shark Week!

Always being on the move and knowing the importance of play, we don’t really watch TV. With that said, there are only 2 weeks we truly look forward to watching together as a family: NHL opening week, and SHARK WEEK!

Sharks are so fascinating no matter your age. Emma loves learning about the oceans and ocean life in general thanks to shows like Octonauts, the mermaid trend happening now, and her momma always focusing a whole month at school on ocean life. ūüėČ So, in honor of the 30th Anniversary of Discovery’s Shark Week, I’ve compiled some of my past and present ideas and teaching moments dedicated to Sharks!

In the classroom, we would spend the first week or so doing multiple projects that would transform the room. Before opening the classroom for the unit, I would use blue streamers to make “ocean waves” across the ceiling using the drop tiles. It was dual purpose as it set the tone for the upcoming unit and looked great too! As we learned about different species of ocean animals, students would use materials at the art center to create their own version like this sea turtle. We would then hang up the animals in our floating ocean. Other animals I’ve used included jellyfish, clown fish, angelfish, and seahorses.

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Some other projects included these 3D ocean waves made from construction paper and glue. This activity is great for working on scissor skills since the students can cut their own strips of paper. I love it because it gets them thinking outside-the-rectangle of traditional 2D art and challenges them to take their artwork to the next level.

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I love using sensory materials in new ways. To make these jellyfish, students first used paint to make the watery background. We then used some bubble wrap I had recycled from a package to create the large part of the jellyfish and pipe cleaners for the tentacles.

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Did I say how much I love using sensory materials?! The coral was a tricky task for my 4-year-olds to cut out. By gluing on rice we added some texture as we worked on our fine motor skills. If you haven’t already, check out my post on how easy it is to turn plain rice into Rainbow Rice!

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I love this perspective project below. This is a picture of my finished painting (I love doing the projects alongside the students). There are two ways you could set this up: pre-mix the paint colors and have students order by shade, or have the students mix the colors themselves. To get it set up use 3 paint colors: white, blue, and black and about 10 mixing cups labeled 1-10. In the first cup place just white paint, and in the 10th cup just black paint. Cup 5 would be just blue paint. Then challenge the students to use a combination of blue/white and blue/black paint to create a gradient that flows smoothly from cup 1 to 10. This does take some trial and error, but definitely meaningful! To create the “ocean floor looking up” perspective, start with a white circle anywhere on the paper. Then paint in circles starting from cup 2 and slowly move out to cup 9 as you work toward the edge of the paper. Use the black in cup 10 for the shark silhouettes.

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Hands-down my favorite project of the week was our life-sized drawing and painting of a great white shark that hung in our ocean from the ceiling. We made our great white 15 feet long. It was a challenge to keep it hanging all week (it was pretty heavy) and sadly I do not have a picture! My SECOND favorite project is below.

Sometimes I give my students a pattern to cut from (like the coral) and sometimes I do not. In this case, I did not give any patterns but had students draw and cut out their own shapes. We started with the large triangle and then added a semicircle for the mouth. Four circles helped create eyes, and triangles for the teeth. How cute did these turn out?! I love how they all look unique!

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More recently, I posted on Instagram¬†about this invitation to play I set up for Emma.¬†We found this tube of sea animals from Safari Ltd¬†and¬†we had to pick it up! While she was napping I had fun setting up this little world for her to explore. She loves the kinetic sand and I love it because there’s no mess! I also threw in a couple of seashells I had on hand because why not?


The blue tray is from a set of 4 we purchased from Lakeshore. We use them all the time for lots of projects. They’re fantastic!


You can’t quite see it, but I also found this amazing t-shirt at Target! Being the amazing budding marine biologist that she is, she immediately knew what it was and double-checked that the animals pictured were in the correct zone. ūüôā


Sadly I do not have pictures of the “meat and potatoes” of our Shark unit which culminated in mini projects focusing on a different species of shark for each child. They were very similar to our engineering projects¬†where students researched and documented facts about their shark, created and labeled a digram with their body parts, and charted where in the oceans their shark lives. When the week was complete, the class could name around 15 different shark species and some of their characteristics.

With Emma’s deep interest, we are looking into a long weekend at Newport Aquarium so she can explore the sharks and other animals up close and personal. Now that I’m able to focus my teaching on my children, I’m hoping to be able to immerse them in real life situations when their interests pique. Until then, our family will continue to enjoy sitting together on the couch learning from a distance as we watch Shark Week.

Wishing you well,


Curriculum, Lesson Planning

21st Century Learning in Early Childhood

21st Century Learning in Early Childhood

What is 21st Century Learning?

The short version? The Partnership for 21st Century Learning¬†(or P21) was the answer to major companies saying students were graduating college and were not ready for the work force. My husband who was a manager for a big-box retail store would come home complaining his associates would not be able to get projects done or would bicker and argue over the smallest details and never make actual progress. Basically, our students were graduating book smart but socially stunted. Companies like Intel, The Walt Disney Company, Ford Motors, and Pearson were looking for the “4 C’s” to be included in students’ education:¬†communication, collaboration, creativity,¬†and¬†critical thinking.

Graphic from P21

While shown separately here to make referencing easier, P21 values all aspects in this framework, including the pools to help facilitate learning, equal in their importance. Everything is integrated into the overall outcome.

21st Century Learning in an Early Childhood Environment

The ironic thing about 21st Century Learning is most preschool and early childhood centers are already doing it. As professionals, we know better than anyone that a child learns best through play and interacting with peers. Not only that, we intentionally set up our day to have students work and learn together in groups. It is very common in the block center to see students using both woodblocks and toy animals. What usually happens is the students will use the blocks to create houses or shelters for the animals to live in. They then act out imaginative episodes with their peers. While this might seem like simple play to the average viewer, the trained early childhood professional knows it is¬†much much more than that! Students are using their¬†creativity and¬†critical thinking skills to first build a shelter out of the blocks. Is it big enough? Is there a roof? They then¬†collaborate with their peers to share their resources and build a structure together. The rest is all¬†creativity and¬†communication. Is it raining outside and our T-Rex needs to go to sleep? Maybe he’s hungry and needs a car to drive to the grocery store! The dramatic play here is endless. This is just one example, but learning opportunities like this happen continuously in all centers.

So if we’re already¬†doing it, why isn’t it being recognized? Honestly, it’s because by nature teachers are modest creatures. We’re not explaining all of the learning happening during the day. We have to remember that the majority of the people we serve do¬†not have degrees or training in¬†any sort of education field. While it is something educators eat, breathe, and live, to the untrained eye this same dinosaur and blocks scenario just looks like simple play time. We also need to educate our parents and families on what learning¬†looks like in early childhood because it’s¬†not all finished worksheets, flashcards and writing samples. I always coach my teaching staff to brag about all of the learning taking place in their lesson plans. Those daily reports are their time to show off all of the wonderful experiences in their classroom so why not take credit for everything happening? If you come from a center with a prescribed lesson plan, what does your newsletter look like? What do your conferences look like? Make sure you’re giving yourself all of the credit you deserve!

Wording is everything!

Below is a sample lesson plan from my Pre-Kindergarten classroom. The theme was “Engi-nuity” where we were studying famous buildings and architecture from all over the world. At the end of our two weeks, each student selected a structure to recreate using whatever materials they thought would work best. I’ll first show you some examples of how I worded the lesson plans, and then show some final products at the end.

Sharing Our Ideas & Art History: During morning meeting we used our Promethean Board to look at the architectural design of the Eiffel Tower using Google Earth. We learned about the lead architect on the project, Steven Sauvestre, and why he designed the Tower using triangles.

Developing Our Imaginations, Music & Movement: As we worked during Project Time, we listened to traditional French music so we were totally immersed in the culture of the time period the Eiffel Tower was built. Our teacher would point out different instruments like the accordion so we could hear its timbre.

Building Our Skills, Computer & Technology:¬†We researched famous structures all over the world while utilizing the program “World Explorer” on the computer. To properly navigate the program, we needed to use simple mouse skills like “drag and drop” and click on specific items when prompted. We will use the information we gained during this individual activity to help guide our selection of a structure to recreate.

Building Our Skills, Manners: We worked together as a class to build a 3D puzzle of the Eiffel Tower. While it tested our critical thinking skills, we also had to collaborate and communicate as a team to finish the puzzle correctly.

Sharing Our Ideas, Literature & Language: We worked in small groups to research information about our chosen structure. With help from our teacher, we worked on our handwriting and phonemic skills as we wrote three interesting facts on our structure information poster.

Becoming a P21 Exemplar

While the wording of your lesson plans is a great first step to P21, I must stress that like any accreditation, there is a process involved. If your center is interested in becoming accredited as a P21 Exemplar, I recommend taking their Preliminary Quiz¬†to see if your center should apply. There are also great resources on STEM, professional development opportunities, and even a parents’ guide to 21st Century Learning and citizenship on their main website.

Wishing you well,



Disclaimer: Photos and information used with permission from Partnership for 21st Century Learning.