Thursday, November 29, 2012

It's Begining to Look a Lot Like Christmas!

It is much quicker for me to Facebook during the Holidays --- please follow "Play Counts" on Facebook for several daily updates as to what exciting Christmasy things we are doing!

Lots of ideas that can be translated into other times of the year as well!!

Hope you are having a magical holiday season filled with imaginations and creativity (with LOTS of learning hidden in the middle!!)

Merry Christmas!


Friday, November 16, 2012

Plopping 101

Due to recent requests to explain what I mean when I use the term "plop",  I have decided to write up this little tutorial:

 I am a defender of play and a professional brain developer.  I am also a self-declared "plopper".  Through my 14 years of operating a family childcare business, I have had the privilege of observing children, ages 2-6, make sense of this wonderful world we live in. I have also discovered the art and value of the "plop".

A plop, by my own, self-made definition is (insert vision of me putting on instant, IQ-boosting spectacles and clearing my throat): 
Plop (noun):

      Anything that is placed in a child’s environment with zero adult direction, demonstration or expectation.  The child is given the freedom of time, technique, task and team.  The adult quietly observes and gives opportunities for children to try, fail, succeed, explore and ask for what they need.

I use to have a love affair with planning. I can't tell you how much I loved filling planners with activities, songs, games, and materials that I KNEW young children would greatly enjoy.  I knew how long they would want to do each thing.  I knew that they would want to learn about dinosaurs for two weeks in March.  I loved planning for months in advance and looking at all the learning that was going to happen.  I loved marking off my little check list of all the early learning guidelines that we were going to meet.  Bottom line,   I. LOVED. BEING. IN. CONTROL.

I learned a lot during those years of being in control, leading young children.  Those years of being afraid to trust children to lead me.  Those years when children asked me what we were going to do every single day, unable to lead themselves.

Here is a small list of what I learned during "those" years:

1)  When one forces children to do something, one is going to have discipline issues.
2)  I took it personally when "my crew" didn't like MY hard work and planning, and found myself making them do my "great" ideas anyway because I just KNEW they would see the light.(see #1 for why this is a problem)
3)  Children have their own ideas of what they would like to do, and those ideas are usually far better than those of a controlling adult.
4)  When children are followers instead of leaders too much, they lose confidence in their own ideas.
5)  Sometimes, MOST times....better, random and spontaneous things happen, that plans can't possibly be made for, that are way better then any plan ever could be.
6)  When wonderfully spontaneous things happen enough, one accepts the fact that over-planning and leading is not such a good way to accomplish early learning goals......(insert LIGHTBULB!).

These lessons are what led me to being a "plopper".  I loved to plan, but I had realized the negative side of being too rigid and too planned.   So...I began planning a plop.  It was the perfect marriage between my love of planning, and giving children open-ended opportunities to be in charge of their own learning.

Below is a list of random facts and thoughts about plopping.  Each item links to a previously written blog post

A plop allows for open ended exploration  By quietly placing something that creates curiosity in a child's environment, without ANY direction...the possibilities are literally endless and wide open!

A plop can be, and usually is something VERY simple  When plopping, don't forget the SIMPLE. Do not overthink the "plop".  Many people have told me that they are not clever enough to come up with a new plop everyday.  1) A plop does not need to be clever, leave the job of "clever" to your littles. 2) You don't need a new plop schedule needs to be followed when plopping. Some plops last for weeks in my program. Some flop, but I keep them in the environment, and my littles find a purpose for it days later...or, sometimes never.  Sometimes I add to a current plop. There truly is no right or wrong way to plop...other then to give directions and demonstration and attach adult expectations to the plop.

Following children can lead to more plops!  When the environment children are in causes them to wonder...they become the leader in the plopping game!  Observe your children, listen to their cues, listen to the conversations.  Grab a word they are using and add a mystery word to deepen the learning!

A plop can lead to children asking for what they need (YES!)  Some plops require more....give children the opportunity to ask for what more they need.

How can you plop?  There are many ways to plop. You can plop before the children arrive by either having the plop be very obvious, or be sneaky, and hide the plop amongst the other toys in the environment.  You can plop while the children are playing, simply set a plop on a table, or on the floor, then step back and await it's discovery.  You can plop as a group.  This technique is one I use when there are safety concerns to discuss with the plop.
A plop can inspire IMAGINATIONS  Open ended, simple, wonder-causing plops inspire imaginations EVERY SINGLE TIME!  Imaginations are needed for SOLVING PROBLEMS!

A plop can be a problem that needs to be solved  Plopping a plop in an inconvenient location, plopping an incomplete plop or the plop itself can create moments for children to be problem solvers. Perhaps a new plop is up on the ceiling.  Let the children figure out a technique to get it down.

There you have it!  The basics of "plopping" -- now, don't just hang around here!  Go plop something!!

About the Author:
Denita Dinger is an internationally-known speaker and author.  

To inquire about booking her for your next conference or training, email her at

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Socks.  That's read correctly.  Socks.  Who knew there was so much learning in socks?

Simply.  you also read correctly.  This is a very simple, this is not a post announcing an earth shattering new way for young children to learn.  It is just a reminder that there IS learning in the VERY simple!

Let me set the scene:  The mystery word on this particular day was "mix".  After having fun mixing ourselves and organizing us in different ways (See my Facebook page, "Play Counts" to learn more of our everyday adventures ) we moved on to mixing up socks. 

Simply, Socks #1:  mix and match, find the pairs.   I just mixed up the socks and tossed them all around the room ( the children love it when I do this!!).   When I was finished, the word "Go!" or sometimes the words "Match them!" started the fun!  I have added an element of time to this as well with the use of a stop watch.  It's a nice way to throw some math into the fun:  number recognition, function and measurement.  Each time we see if we can match all of the socks quicker then we did before.

While doing this, a child or two would return to the bucket with a sock on their hand.  This sparked another idea, and a way to use socks to strengthen those all important small motor muscles!

Simply Socks #2:  Once again, I scattered the socks, but the directions changed.   See how many socks you can put on ONE hand!!  Take a look at the pictures below to see the focus, determination, coordination and muscle strength this took:

I love observing children taking part in activities at THEIR level!
  This is 2 yr old Trillian....he is still figuring out all the wonderful things his hands do, and how to make them do said wonderful things. 
Following a child's lead,  and letting them learn through spontaneous moments meets children right where they are!

Ethan is adding his fourth sock.  At this point the process is quite challenging.  Look at his face though....he doesn't show any signs of giving up does he!!?

This was HARD work!  When all the socks were on hands, we counted as each child pulled off the socks one at a time.  Patience, consideration, more small motor work and counting are just a few of the things I observed during this.

The children had anywhere from one sock to four socks on their hand.  I was most impressed.  The natural flow of our morning lead to one more activity.  It's basically the same as what we just did, but using TEAMWORK!  Any time I can get my children to work together, I go for it.  Cooperating and working together is such an important, even priceless life-long skill!

Simply Socks #3:  Working together!  Repeat #2, but work together.  One friend hold open the sock, while the other pushes their hand in.  The photos below show you the benefits of teamwork:

The person holding the sock has to patiently hold the sock open, and still while the person putting their hand into the sock needs to use visual planning and determination.  Both have to remain focused on the task at hand.

In the end, Gavin had ELEVEN socks on his hand!!!  Look at their faces!!!  I believe this picture speaks for itself!  These are two focused children excited and proud to be accomplishing the task at hand!

When all the socks were used up, again....we pulled off the socks one at a time and counted!  It was so exciting to see how many socks we could fit on one hand using teamwork!

A few more ideas:

Simply Socks #4:  Put silly socks on over the socks the children brought...practicing makes perfect, and putting socks on our feet is hard work!
Simply Socks #5:  Put socks on hands and then pick up items off the floor.  Keep adding a sock to make the task more difficult!
Simply Socks #6:   Just "plop" the socks in the environment and see what ideas the children think of!  Their minds are far more creative and uninhibited then ours are!

SIDE NOTE:  A plop, by my own, self-made definition is (insert vision of me putting on instant, IQ-boosting spectacles and clearing my throat): an object, book, story, song or mystery word that is quietly placed (aka: plopped) into a child's environment while sharing no (zip, zero, none, notta) pre-conceived adult ideas in order to give ownership of discovery to children. The "plopper" is prepared for what could POSSIBLY happen...but is willing to drop those ideas in order to follow the usually BETTER possibilities a child's mind imagines!

There you have it.  I told you it wasn't an earth shattering post.  I do, however, hope it sparks your imagination, to once again, see the learning in the SIMPLE!

You just can't deny it....PLAY COUNTS!!!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ice Ghosts (aka: Frozen Blobs or Frozen Volcanoes)

Sometimes, ideas are sparked from life's most simple moments.

The idea for ice ghosts came from the simple process of cooling off my daughter's breakfast in the freezer.  I stuck her sandwich, wrapped in the paper towel, slightly damp from the steam of cooking, into the freezer.  In minutes, the paper towel had frozen in the position it was in.  "LIGHT BULB"

The idea for "ice ghosts" was born. 

If ghosts are something forbidden in your program, "ice blobs" or "frozen blobs" works too -- OR...for even more fun:  "frozen volcanoes" (read below for more info. on frozen volcanoes)

A WORD IN FAVOR OF GHOSTS:  I know some of you struggle with whether to bring ghosts into the Halloween celebration.  In my opinion, ghosts, when presented in a fun, light hearted way, are just that...FUN!  I use ghosts as a tool for talking about scary things in a fun, light hearted, humorous way.  I also use monsters for the same purpose.  I think facing fears is empowering for children.  Ghosts don't kill, they aren't bloody and they don't hurt people -- yet, they have an aire of spookiness about them that can spark grand conversations and realizations of feelings.  They also help children distinguish between real and make-believe.  In my opinion, they are a "safe scary".


  • plain white paper towel or plain white washclothes (the wash clothes turn out can purchase a package of 9 for $3 ish at Walmart)
  • water
  • cups (to form your ghost, blob or volcano on)
  • freezer
  • little paint brushes (the kind for water color painting)
  • colored water (I recommend coloring your water with Liquid Watercolor from Discount School Supply)

Step 1:  Put the washcloth in a bowl of water

Step 2:  Squeeze the excess water
This is a FANTASTIC workout for those all important hand-writing muscles!

Step 3:  Unfold the washcloth
 Both small motor strength and control of that strength are valuable for handwriting.  When using the paper towel, a child has to control their strength or else the paper towel will tear.  A great lesson in cause and effect and trial and error as well!

Step 4:  Drape the washcloth
A lot of coordination is needed for this step as well!  Lots of vocabularly is used too:  drape, slide, centered, balance etc.

Step 5:  Place your ghosts, blobs or volcanoes (whatever you choose to call them) in the freezer

Step 6:  After your frozen creations have spent the evening in the freezer, remove the cup form, balance it on it's hardened points and paint away!

The children were amazed at how hard that soft washcloth had become!  They also loved feeling the changes as the washcloth thawed.  Exploring physical change helps a child better understand this world we live in.  It is empowering to KNOW THINGS!

As the washcloth thawed, a hole started forming in the center.  When my littles observed this they shouted out "Look Nita!!  It's a volcanoe now!!"  (note for volcanoes:  have baking soda and colored vinegar on hand....scoop some baking soda into that sunken part and let them squirt it with the erruption!!)

The end product:  a thawed, colorful washcloth (don't worry...if you use the Liquid Watercolor from Discount School Supply the color will wash right out so you can do it again!!)
Once again, so much learning in the simple!  The children learned about cause and effect, physical change, new vocabularly words, imaginations were at work, small motor muscles, visual planning, sharing, colaborating (to make new colors), discussing and facing fears (if you go the ghost route)
Simple counts and play counts too!!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Pumpkin Day (CAUTION: this post is loaded with unexpected learning!)

After an energetic phone call from "my Jenn" (aka:  my idea bouncer-offer, oh-my-goodness-this-ever-so-simple-plop-turned-out-amazing sharer, fellow child care provider across town and dear, dear friend) I simply HAD to have a pumpkin day like Jenn did!

I wrote up the announcement and request for pumpkins immediately on my private group on Facebook that is just for my daycare families (a GREAT tool).

The following day was to be PUMPKIN DAY.  I had no plans other then I knew there would be 10 pumpkins joining us for the day!  I have learned to appreciate the ability of young children to lead their learning.  I was prepared for spontaneity and openly willing to grab whatever I needed to enhance their thoughts and ideas!  Let the learning begin!!

Little did I know that the learning would begin for some the evening before!  Two brothers used LOTS of imagination speculating what we would be doing with the pumpkins both the evening prior and in the morning before arriving!

I have fabulous families, so every child showed up on Pumpkin Day carrying their very own pumpkin.  The only specifications for the size of the pumpkin was that their child needed to be able to manage it.

From the second everyone arrived with their pumpkins the learning was through the roof!

1)  Comparing and contrasting.  Children are naturally attracted to the size of things.  They love things that are BIG as well as small.  So many skills were being polished in this OH SO SIMPLE of moments.  Skills like:  using words to express ourselves and share knowledge, understanding measurement, observation, descrimination and the art of conversation (waiting while others share their excitment before you share yours).  All of these skills are the basics of many life-long skills from letter and number recognition to expressing ourselves appropriately and valuable social skills.

2)  Our favorite pumpkin song has the line "I draw one nose, I draw one mouth and two eyes that can see!"  While singing that song, and holding our pumpkins, I thought...wouldn't it be fun to draw faces on our pumpkins, wipe it away and draw a different one?!

Washable markers worked great for this, and ONE baby wipe at each table to be used for wiping the pumpkins clean.  I purposely "plant" conflict for children to practice managing every single day.  The one baby wipe needed to be shared by all the children at the table.  This not only encourages sharing but also conversation, patience, cooperation and organizing.

3)  Pumpkins are HEAVY.  Two things happen when a child carries something that is big and heavy.  First of all, there is that all important, and often times under-appreciated sense of pride.  The second is the heavy, big muscle work that also gets under-appreciated, and the fact that large muscles play an important role in handwriting is often times overlooked.  It is safe to say that lugging heavy pumpkins around the room is a pre-writing activity

Two year old Trillian really struggled to carry his pumpkin.  Lifting heavy things helps children
get in touch with their bodies and learn what muscles are doing what.  Coordinating the correct muscles
to accomplish the task at hand is a life-long skill!

SO impressed with my crew!  We were all watching and encouraging Trillian to bring his pumpkin over to where

everyone else was sitting.  Finally, it was suggested that he roll the pumpkin!  Not only is there
fantastic problem solving going on here, but also acting out the meaning of a new word!  Later, when Trillian was playing
with a ball, he kept saying "roll?"  :)
4)  Organizing is a valuable skill.  Organizing both peers AND pumpkins is an extremely awesome opportunity to polish life-long skills!
Upon 4 year old Ethan's suggestion to line up the pumpkins from biggest to smallest, everyone pitched in.  Ethan took the role as leader, and helped the younger ones and best pal Gavin hopped in to make corrections.
After naming the pumpkins big, medium and was realized that there were still 7 more pumpkins laying their nameless.  This sparked a most awesome moment of brainstorming words that meant BIG, words that meant medium (which, we could not think of any) and words that meant small.  Children love to share what they know...and they were eager to offer their ideas!!  I was hearing words like: "gigantic", "enormous", "large", "huge", "humungus", "teeny", "tiny", "eensy" just to name a few.
I noticed that as the children shared their words, they manipulated their bodies to match!  YES!  Acting out the meaning of words is a great way to enter that information and gives children a firm grasp of the meaning.

Teamwork was used to bring over the really, really big pumpkin we have decopauged the day before in order to add it
to the line-up!


teensy weensy
5)  Prediction and problem solving were two more skills that I would have never guessed we'd be polishing up on pumpkin day!

All I did was challenge the children to fit all of the pumpkins into this really big bag (from Ikea).  I followed up the challenge with one question.  "Do you think they will fit?"  (I thought for sure there was no way they would fit, as did the children....boy, were we surprised!!)

After a group of children fits 10 pumpkins into one bag -- -they want to lift it up!!  Talk about using BIG MUSCLES!  There was also lots of teamwork, words, cooperation, collaboration, idea sharing and loads of fun going on!!

The next challenge I gave the children was to see if they could move all those pumpkins all by themselves!  LOTS of self pride going on here as the children all cheered for each other!!  Large upper body and back muscles being used to pull this heavy load!


6)  Taking previous knowledge and applying it to a different situation or environment.  As we were getting ready to head outside, the children all requested the pumpkins come out too.  And so, knowing that following children always leads to wonderful learning opportunities -- out they came.

The great thing wasn't the pumpkins, was the bag!!!  The children pretended to be the pumpkins while their friends pulled them around the yard!

Judging from the expression on the children's faces (see photo below...and all above!), Pumpkin Day was a huge success!  The children were completely in control, and I'm so glad they were, as I could not have planned such a wonderul morning full of learning and completely lacking behavior issues!  The children's interests lead the way, and you can't deny LOADS of learning occured!!  All I did was observe, document the learning (with pictures), follow and enhance when needed. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Empower Children! Encourage Problem Solving

Encouraging children to solve problems teaches them to be responsible for their actions, both the good, and the not so good.  It also teaches us PATIENCE, as it takes quite a lot of self regulation to not step in and help a child solve a problem!

Last week, Erik spilt his milk during lunch.  Here is the conversation that followed the incident:

Jack:  "Uh oh.  Looks like you have a problem Erik"
Gavin:  "How are you going to solve that problem Erik?"
Ethan:  "Better get what you need."

Erik stood up, without saying a word and walked to the counter to get what he needed (paper towel).  Unfortunately the paper towel was just a bit out of his reach.

Erik:  "Um...Nita?  I could use a little help here."
Me:  "Sure Erik, I can help you."

I handed Erik the roll of paper towel.  He tore off a couple of pieces and began solving his problem.  When he was finished, he sat back down to enjoy the rest of his meal, a look of complete, 100% satisfaction and pride written boldly across his face.

Encouraging children to take ownership of their "whoopsies" and fixing the problem that said "whoopsy" might cause fosters responsibility and pride.

Not all problems stem from a whoopsy though.  Some problems just naturally exist in the environment and need to be solved on a daily basis.  Take our fort light for example.  When we built our home, I purposely put that light switch up out of the reach of little hands to avoid the temptation of turning the fort light on/off/on/off/on.....etc. In the end, I am so glad I put the fort light up high as it gives my crew a daily problem to solve!   If they want to play in the fort, they have to figure out how to turn on the light.

Just today, 2 year old Trillian came trudging across the room, dragging this chair behind him.  I quietly observed him, waiting to see what his plan was before I told him to put the chair away (thank goodness I have worked on the skill of observation and understanding.  I always try to first take time to understand the situation before I over-react)

When he stopped by the car bucket to retrieve a piece of track, I had a pretty good idea what he was planning.  I was also very impressed.  He has been in my program for just one month, and in that short amount of time has learned that solving problems is encouraged and welcomed here.

He pulled up the chair right underneath the fort light switch, climbed up onto the chair, and reached as far as his two year old growth would allow him!

Avery, observing along side of me, watched patiently as Trillian reached, and reached some more, giving up was not an option for this little monkey.

Avery finally stepped in and said "Come on Trillian, I will help you!  When you need help, just ask for it."  (I beamed at this moment, as it is a line I say many times during the day.  I loved seeing Avery supply Trillian with not only help, but nurturing as well!)
Turn the light on, take 2.....and ACTION! 

Armed with a much better tool, Trillian returned to his chair to attempt to solve the problem once again.  Watching him manipulate this much longer piece of track was hilarious!  I so wish I would have grabbed the video camera instead!

Trillian was determined to accomplish his task and to feel the sense of pride he has been watching everyone else enjoy.  He used all his strength to control the longer tool in order to turn on the light, but still no success.

Again, Avery was watching and trying her darndest to not just step in and do it for him.  I was very impressed with her self control, as she is a little mother hen, and loves nothing more then doing things for Trillian (putting on his shoes, his coat etc.)
Finally, Avery and I could stand it no more!  She looked at me and I nodded in approval.  No words needed to be spoken as we both knew what we were thinking.  "Yes, please help this poor, determined child!"

So teamwork finished the job, problem solved, task accomplished and HUGE pride was felt by all involved!!
Step back and take a look at your program.  Are children encouraged to solve problems?  Are they encouraged to ask for what they need? 
 It takes some time and consistency to foster an environment that encourages learning through problem solving, learning through mistakes and learning through taking responsbility.
Here are some key words that need to be used consistently in order to inspire an environment full of independent problem solvers. 
1)  "It looks like you have a problem that needs to be solved."
I say this anytime a child spills anything, bumps another child's tower, tattles that someone has taken a toy away...anything that creates a problem.  Giving the ownership of the problem to that child makes them responsible for finding a solution.  In the case of another child being mean to them, I like to empower the child with the right words to say back to someone.  Words like "I had that toy and I would like it back please.", or "I do not like it when you hit me.  Please do not do it again!!!"  Standing up for oneself is empowering and solving the problem is, DOUBLE PRIDE!!
2)  "How are you going to solve this problem?" or "Do you have a plan?"
This gives children a chance to develope a plan of action.   Concrete thinking, imagination and creativity are needed to organize a plan in one's mind.  This question also causes the child to slow down, take time to think and analyze the situation.  All very "use your smarts" kind of things!

Asking a child about their plan also gives them a chance to express themselves with words.  Putting thoughts and actions into words fosters vocabulary and encourages a child to share his ideas.
3)  "Remember to ask for what you need."
I like to remind children that I am here for them, but they need to let me know with words.   The tools that they need, and assistance is but a simple request away.  Ask for what you need!
Finally, make sure to acknowledge problem solving with encouraging and pride-filled words.  A lot of little moments during our day are really problem solving if you just take a second to think about it.  Simply, a child letting you know that the toilet paper is all out in the bathroom is solving a problem.  Capture those moments with an encouraging and thankful word or two! 
 Empower children!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Keep it Simple...Children will Make it FABULOUS!

Sometimes, simple is better.....MOST times, simple is better!

The other day, as a way to make a station last one more day, I removed ONE component, and replaced it with another.

The original station:  colored toothpicks and plastic salt shakers.

The exchange:  sliced pool noodles (yep...the simple, pool noodles available for $1 at the Dollar Tree, cut into slices like you would slice a baguette) in place of the plastic salt shakers

The results:  FABULOUS!!!

The initial play resulted in a LOT of Birthday cakes!

See the learning?  Jack is counting how many "candles" are on his birthday cake!  Did I ask him to do this?  Nope...the
conversation amongst the children led to them counting the candles on his cake....ALL LED BY CHILDREN!

Finally, it happened....someone built UP.  Buh bye simple birthday cakes!

Through trial and error, Gavin learned that his stairs (on the left) needed a support (on the right).

When is the last time you felt this proud?! 
Feeling success and pride help children feel safe to TRY NEW THINGS!  Erik will try even harder to achieve other tasks such as zipping his coat, putting on shoes, writing his name all because of this little boost to his sense of pride!

Opportunities that have no right or wrong, no rules, just freedom help build confident and creative children!  Creative children can solve problems, manipulate materials and invent new stuff!

A tongue out is a huge compliment to the absorbancy of the activity!  Ethan is clearly 100% absorbed in what he is doing!


Side note:  This piece of "FABULOUS" was created at a "Let Them Play" training event presented by my co-author, Jeff Johnson and myself.  Notice the addition of smaller pool noodle pieces.  Simply cut the sliced pool noodle into pieces (like a pizza)
Give children simple materials, time and freedom so they can turn SIMPLE into something FABULOUS!