Starting school and saying goodbye: Help for children and their grownups

Marie Catrett has been working with children and families for more than 15 years and has been an occasional guest contributor to this blog since 2012. As founder, teacher, and lead “puddle spaloosher” at Tigerlily Preschool in South Austin, she has deftly guided many families through the process of parting ways for the school day. Thanks to Marie for sharing her expert advice with Alt Ed Austins readers just in time for the new school year!

When Dad was taking Jim to school for the first time, Jim said, ‘Will I have a friend at school?’ ‘I think you will,’ said Dad. And Dad smiled down at him.

In the big schoolroom Dad said, ‘Goodbye.’ Jim didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to say goodbye. ‘Come Jim,’ the teacher said.

Will I Have a Friend? by Miriam Cohen

Starting school can feel like such a leap of faith for parent and child. If you’re anxious about the transition, let’s take a deep breath together and look at some ways to help. Welcome to preschool!

My teaching year begins with the work of welcoming young children and their families into our school program. Everyone is excited, nervous, and maybe even a little sad thinking about this transition, about saying goodbye. Stepping into a new space is hard work for both the children and the grownups. Everyone new to each other: new school, getting to know and trust a new teacher, navigating a change in morning routine.  All these pieces will become familiar with practice, but in the beginning everything feels so unfamiliar.

Marie Catrett and Tigerlily Preschool alum Willa

Marie Catrett and Tigerlily Preschool alum Willa

During the week before school begins, children first come with a parent for a one-on-one visit with me in the new space. “Hello,” I say gently, “my name is Marie. It’s so nice to meet you.” I’m a welcoming, gentle presence, letting my energy meet them where they are. “This is a very informal visit,” I explain to the parents. “We really don’t have an agenda at all except to invite the children to start checking things out, to be curious.” I’m eager to see what sort of things these three- and four-year-olds are interested in. Some kids race around touching everything, maybe talking a mile a minute. Another child might perch on the edge of his mom’s lap, taking it all in much more slowly. Either approach—and everything in between—is most welcome. We are saying our first hello to each other.

On the second visit the children come again with their parents in a small group for a playdate-style visit, seeing me and the classroom again, and starting to get to know the other children. We might return to a favorite activity from their first visit, put away some personal items in their cubby, or check out the all-important bathroom. As the children continue to explore, I am checking in with their parents: how are you feeling about goodbye?

Goodbyes will happen on the children’s next trip to Tigerlily, their first day of school. Sometimes separation feels like the hardest thing we’ll do together. Growth sure can feel uncomfortable: all that change, all that new, but when a child works through separation, they build new connections, confidence in themselves, and we should trust in their ability to step out into a supportive and ever expanding world. The same can be true for the grownups. As our child works through the goodbye process, we’re growing as parents, too. Starting school is kind of our first goodbye. We promise a three-year-old we will return, always, and our experience together of separation and coming back becomes a sturdy base for future comings and goings, transitions of all kinds for the rest of our lives.  

Here’s what I know: I expect that at some point in the year every child will go through a period of having some hard goodbyes. Some children have their rough patch right at the start of school. Letting the person you love most go away IS sad. Another child may bounce into the room, barely looking back as their parent tries to be heard: “Goodbye, goodbye? Honey, mama’s leaving now. . . . ” Then in a few weeks or months, boom! a period of some sad goodbyes because sleep has been off, breakfast was too rushed, or it is a gloomy day so staying in bed with pajamas and lovies and pancakes just sounds a whole lot better.

As the teacher I’m ready to support this transition with a lot of love and some very good tools to help us get through the hard work of goodbye and on to the other side of having a wonderful time together.

Some suggestions:

1.     Don’t start too soon.
Try not to process the upcoming start of school too far in advance. The weeks and weeks and weeks of summer are too long for young children to think and worry about an upcoming transition. A few days is just right. I would wait to talk in great detail about school until there has been an actual visit to the new place because then you can talk about specific details, and that’s so helpful and reassuring to young children. “Yes, you have a hook with your name on it for your new backpack, don’t you? And we saw the place you’ll put your lunchbox. I remember how much you liked those swings. . . . ”

2.     Talk to the teacher.
Have a conversation with your child’s teacher about what goodbye will look like with your child. After several getting-to-know-each-other visits, we have some sense of each other, and you can share your best guess of how saying goodbye will go for your child. And you might, happily, be surprised! Do ask: What does support here look like for a child who is having a hard time? I believe that children are fully entitled to feel what they feel. Part of my job is helping a child access ways to express those feelings in appropriate and ultimately helpful ways.

3.     Build a routine.
A goodbye routine is a structured plan that x, y, z, will happen and then it will be time for goodbye. Something like “We’ll get to school, put your lunchbox on the blue shelf, then go out to the swings. Then Dad will get a big hug, say goodbye, and see you right after lunch.” Keep it simple.

4.     Make your routine and stick to it.
Having a dependable sequence of events will help you both navigate the morning. After your child has gone through the routine a few times, it becomes familiar and predictable, two things that really help children with anxiety. I encourage parents to stick with their routine even (and especially!) through a hard goodbye. Your routine can be a kind of guide rope, a path to follow when things feel hard. Give it a few days. It will get better.

When we talk about respecting feelings, that’s pretty easy with the good ones: excitement, joy, curiosity, contentment. But I think it’s essential that the hard stuff get honored too: sadness, fear, anger, worry. All of the feelings—the entire rainbow of them—are okay to feel and express, even the hard ones.

In my room we dance for our joy, singing the names of the people we love: Mama, Papa, Murphy the dog. We talk about what’s going on. If somebody’s angry: I see you’re so mad he crashed your block tower, but I can’t let you hit him. Let’s make some more space to work, and I’ll help you tell him that you don’t want him to crash your tower ever again. If somebody’s sad: You know what, yesterday when you had that sad time before story I remember you and I rocked in the rocking chair together and pretty soon you felt much better, and then you painted about the sunflower. You could have some more rocking today to help yourself feel better.

Here it is okay to feel sad. Sadness is part of being a person. When we can feel our sadness and talk about it, we create a safe place to be who we are, together, and to notice the many options available to us to help get to feeling better. Going through the hard part is what gets you to the better place. We’re learning how to take good care of ourselves and each other and all our other learning happens from there.

Here’s what teacher support during a hard goodbye can look like:

  • Recognize what the child is feeling. “You’re feeling really sad to say goodbye.” 
  • Validation. “Yes, it was hard to say goodbye to Mama this morning. You really miss her, and she loves you so much.”
  • Offer comfort. “I’m here to help, and I promised your grownups I would take very good care of you while you are at school.  May I hold you / read you a story / see about some more pushes on the swing?”  
  • Explain what’s happening, emphasizing the parent’s return. “We’re going to play outside and have some snack, and you know what, Mama will be right back for you after lunch. Mama always comes back.”
  • Help engage the child with activity. “Yesterday you were so busy with digging in the sandbox, shall we go see if the buckets and shovels are out?” 

Speaking on behalf of early childhood teachers everywhere, I want worried parents to know that after you leave a sad kid, they almost always get much better very quickly! Staying on and extending goodbye in the hopes that by doing more things you’ll then be able to depart without tears makes total sense to me in my parental heart, but as the teacher what I see most often is that on a hard morning, when the parent chooses to delay leaving over and over again, the child’s anxiety continues to grow and grow. I ask parents to stay until they are confident in my ability to take care of their child, and then go ahead and say goodbye and leave, knowing that I will be right there to use my very good tools to help. Things are almost always better very quickly, but if they ever should not be—if within a few minutes I am not able to comfort a child and help them to engage in something wonderful—I’m in touch with the parent to check in and consider any adjustments needed to our transition plan. 

So: Deep breaths; things are going to be okay. We are all doing such important growing!

When your child has moved through their hard goodbye period, and separation does in fact go more smoothly, there’s a powerful story we can help them notice about themselves. “You know what, when you first started school everything was new and it was pretty hard to say goodbye, but you got some help and cheering up, and pretty soon we figured out how to do ten pushes on the swing and a great big hug, and now you know I always come back right after lunch.” When we help children to tell the story of their own growth, these messages help them tackle the other hard things. “Pretty soon you knew all about preschool after you did it some. Now you know ALL about it and are ready to graduate, and you know what? Starting kindergarten will be like that.”

Instead of making the goodbye process about avoiding tears, let’s focus on authentic feelings, being present to the child’s experience, and our confidence that children are capable of doing this important work.

Marie Catrett


Look for the helpers

One of the things parents love about the Reggio Emilia approach is the extensive documentation of children’s conversations and learning moments. Two of the things we especially love about Tigerlily Preschool, a small Reggio-based program in South Austin, are the eloquence of Marie Catrett’s documentation and the fiercely loving ways she teaches social justice. Here’s a recent example, with photographs courtesy of Rusk Photography. (The candle in this scene has a history, which you can read in another piece Marie contributed to this blog back in December 2013).

February 1, 2017

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
                                                                                                          —Fred Rogers

Marie: So I was thinking we have something new that we can do at school. I was thinking we could start a new thing that we do sometimes.

L: Like a birthday?

Marie: Well, there are many different ways that people can use candles. I was thinking that sometimes when we notice that people are being brave, and coming together, and being helpers, that we could be looking for that kind of thing in the world when we see it—maybe here at Tigerlily, maybe when you are out in the world—when you see people making things better . . . we talked some about the march, where I had my sign, and all these people had come together, right? I have another thing to tell you about that happened yesterday, and it was at the Capitol, also where people were coming together. There was a special day yesterday for Muslim people to come to the Capitol. Let me light the candle first to be for part of our time talking together about helpers, to be special. Here’s my special candle. . . .  I’m going to light the candle and tell you the story of what happened yesterday here in Austin. So yesterday was a special day where Muslim people got to come to the Capitol and meet with the people who make the rules. That’s something that lots of people can do, when there’s a rule that they have a question about, or they have a problem to talk about. Yesterday was a special time for Muslim people to come, and some Muslim people have been getting told a really mean message that some people can come, but not everybody is allowed—

I: Yeah, like our president.

[In my classroom, we make time to talk together about the things that are on the children’s minds, and since the election I’ve been urging parents to find a way to talk to their little ones. I think it is very scary for children to sense huge feelings and not know why. Even if you think you’re hiding it from them, I promise you they sense it. In my community, the sense of devastation has been huge. 

I listen to the children's words first, respond to their specific questions, and then give children reassurance that grownups are working on this. Here's how this looked on 1/20/17: 

Marie: So, there are a lot of grownups having all kinds of big feelings today. . . . This is a grownup problem that the grownups will figure out; it's not a kid problem, but I want you to know about it if people around you are having a hard time. I think we should try extra hard to take care of people who are hurting. That's my plan.

Four-year-old: When I feel sad, I snuggle with my friends.

Marie: Oh, that's a great way to help. Would you like a hug?

Four-year-old: Yes!

(We hug, then multiple other kids ask for hugs and we get everybody in.)

Four-year-old: And I think I am going to need another one, too.]

Marie: We're getting told that we will be nice to some people, but not nice to all the people. That some people can come be in our country, but then no to some other people. And I think that is a big mistake. I think that our country needs to be for everybody. Just like at Tigerlily where all the things are for all the people. I think grownups need that, too. All the things for all the people. So, yesterday was a special day for the Muslim people to come to the Capitol and because some people have been saying mean things, they said, “Hey, everybody, if you would like to come be helpers and stand up together and say we think this should be for everybody, come on in, let’s all get together and stand together so that everyone who wants to come can feel safe to be here.” And people said, “Hmmm, I could do that, I could help. . . . ” and I want to tell you, as I’m lighting this candle, that they thought that maybe about 70 people would come and be helpers for the Muslim day. But guess how many people came? It was more than 70 people.

W: A lot of people!

Marie: A lot of people. A thousand people came to be helpers to make it good-feeling and safe for everyone. So that’s so exciting. That’s a lot of people. And you know what, you know some of the grownups that went to be helpers at the Capitol. Josh is one of the people that went, and Carrie, I’s mama, is a person that went there. And you might even know more people that went to go and be helpers!

J: Yeah, I didn’t go to that yesterday.

Marie: Mmmm, yes, I would like to go and be a helper, but I was here teaching and being with all of you, which is really important too. And there will be more days for helpers to come do good things in our world. So I think we’ll do this at Tigerlily sometimes. If we notice a story about people in the world being really good helpers to each other, I think we could have a time at Tigerlily where we light a candle and we talk about the good helping that we’re seeing. I thought that was sounding like a good thing we could start doing. We lit the special candle and I can show you some pictures of the helpers at the Capitol yesterday. Because I think their helping was very beautiful.

L: So it can shine.

Marie: So it can shine. Here are some pictures of some really good helping. There were so many people! These are grownups, these are men and women that live in our city, who came together, there were so many of them and they stood so close together they made a wall of people and they linked their arms to be friendly with each other.

So here’s one picture of the helpers making sure the Capitol would feel like a safe, friendly place for the Muslim people to come. You’ll see some Muslim people standing in the middle. See, they are wearing a kind of special scarf on their head called a hijab? And then all the helpers are around them so they can walk in and out among so many friends.

I: That kind of looks like my grandpa, but a little different!

W: It looks like my daddy!

Marie: I am sure the people that came to help are grandpas and daddies and mommies and grandmas and brothers and sisters.

Marie: The man who is wearing the red sweater is shaking people’s hands to say thank you, thank you for coming and helping us feel welcome here today.

I: My mommy is a helper because she helps me feel better.

Marie: Oh yes, I think mommies are helpers and daddies and grandmas and grandpas . . .

I: Today I helped L feel better because I hugged her.

Marie: Oh, yes, I am remembering that L came to say that the growling was scaring her and when you saw that L was scared you stopped growling and gave her a big hug to show her she was safe. I think that was beautiful. Let’s all keep looking for good helpers.

Marie Catrett

Imagine new possibilities

We always jump at the chance to publish Marie Catrett's lovely Reggio Emilia–style documentation of her young students’ learning. Here’s the latest, a photo and video essay on the many uses the children have found for their classroom’s light table. Marie directs Tigerlily Preschool in South Austin.

Agency is the idea that when we act, and act strategically, we effect change upon our environment. Babies are agentive, reaching out into the world, building knowledge, ability, and strength from their own active experience without a negative internal voice suggesting otherwise. “I can’t” comes later when people tell children they are too small, what they want to do is too dangerous, or there’s not enough time to allow for all that pokey trying. But children need thoughtful adults to hold the space for them to explore with the trust and awareness of their own inner judgment. Do what feels right for you in your own body, I tell a child who’s thinking about whether to make the swing go higher. Hold tight with both hands (my rule!), but do what feels right to you.

In my teaching I observe children to understand them better and strive to be a supportive presence that honors the children’s agency.

When things get stuck, I might state what I see: Hmmm, I can’t let you push him, but tell me about what’s not working. This play isn’t working yet, but I know we can figure this out. Then I ask questions. What do you think? How else could you ______? Can you think of another way to _____? How could we find out? And my favorite question for a child who has just made something interesting happen is how did you do that? The response will be wonderfully agentive: Well, first I did this, and then I did that, and then . . . . Wow!

We want children to have a strong sense of agency and from that imagine new possibilities.

The key is curiosity, and it is curiosity, not answers, that we model. As we seek to know more about a child, we demonstrate the acts of observing, listening, questioning and wondering. When we are curious about a child’s words and our responses to those words, the child feels respected. The child is respected. ‘What are the ideas I have that are so interesting? I must be somebody with good ideas.’
—Vivian Paley

When thoughtfully providing children with a new experience to support their continued work, it seems to me that I have a responsibility to provide an introduction that expands rather than limits possibilities. Provide a child with quality materials and give her time to make her own discoveries—the delight of “Look what I just did!” I’ve thought about this idea quite a bit this semester as my children have gotten to know the new light table in our classroom.  

A piece of Reggio equipment that we see in each of their classrooms excited the imagination of North Americans. But the light table, after its purchase, is often misunderstood and underutilized. Think of the light table as a tool that will work independently to teach the children about translucency and opacity. They can do anything on the light table that they might do on any other table. Leave it to the children to figure out what the table is for! It’s safe for them to use either wet or dry media on the table—collage, paint, markers or to build with Legos—or anything. You can even eat there. Note the many uses the children invent. Left to their own exploration, they’ll come to discover what’s light permeable and what isn’t. Our strong Image of the Child and our commitment to children’s agency alert us to back off from providing familiar materials so that children can make their own discoveries.
Seeing Young Children with New Eyes: What We’ve Learned from Reggio Emilia about Children and Ourselves by Sydney Gurewitz Clemens and Leslie Gleim

Here are some of the uses the children have discovered for their light table:

This afternoon the light table became a place to do clay. Viviana did some very fun flat faces, carving through the clay so the light illuminates the features. Stella, busy with flat-making for pizza, gets connected with a rolling pin to see if that tool helps her take clay where she wants it to go.

Shivani (proudly): Guys! Look at the table!
Macky (proudly): It’s a parking lot.
Stella (admiringly): Look at all these squares.


Stella tells me she’s not happy with the way she’s making the letter S. I can give you something to help, I say, using a pencil to make a row of S's. She gets a marker and traces over her page of practice S’s. Actually she gets many markers and does each S in a different color. Writing “rainbow” has become a thing with the group.
Stella: That S is my best one.

Always looking to help the kids find more uses for their light table, this morning I left a basket of very pretty leaves out close by, hoping somebody might notice and combine the leaves with our fantastic light source. Kids did notice the leaves. Viviana decides she’ll draw them at the light table (hooray!) and she begins. Pretty soon somebody thinks that they wish there were flowers for drawing too. I get down the rest of the arrangement, a wonderful assortment of floral shapes and textures. I tell the children that if they see a flower they’d like to draw, they can each take one out of the vase at a time for looking at more closely. One child is pretty certain there’s only one way to draw a flower, making four small circles close together in what looks like a symbolic representation of flower. This is how you do it, she insists, I know because my babysitter taught me. The children consider this. Is there only one way to make a flower?
Marie (gently): I see that is one way to make one kind of flower. And you can do that. And you know what else, let’s look closely at the flowers kids wanted on the light table for drawing because . . . hmmm  . . . oh, I am seeing so many different shapes, I wonder about other ways to make flowers, too?
There is talk about making different kinds of flowers.
Shivani: Look at this flower!
Stella: I like this. I like this drawing flowers.

I am delighted with the latest kid-invented use for our light table. The back story is that in tidying my home I recently came across several spatulas and a big spoon, thought these kitchen items might appeal to the children in the dress-up/pretend-play collection, and added them in. About a week ago kids began making up a game where you push a whiffle ball across the room using the spatulas. This has been called "doing golf." Today the golf game had an entirely new setup on top of the light table, and I see much to admire in the children’s play: inventive use of the table, including making fine use of the on/off switch; "winning" is handled and made inclusive by the children; Viviana’s suggestion that they pause the game to make time to practice; their clear delight with themselves!

We’re continuing to take our time with paper and exploring collage making. I had put out a bin of tissue paper, hoping to encourage more discovery of what kids can do with tissue paper after one child noticed that the thin paper could be squeezed, rolled, and shaped much like our clay. Today kids could keep exploring tissue paper on top of the light table. We can crumple, fold, roll, and tear the paper so far. Viviana combined several pieces and announced she’d made a flower, see?

Stella (carefully covering every bit of the paper with paint, then using a toothpick to inscribe her name): I made the whole world.

Viviana (working with wire after her baby brother’s birth): Come look at the baby I made.

Marie Catrett

Something beautiful: A solstice story

To celebrate the winter solstice, Marie Catrett has generously shared with Alt Ed Austin’s readers the gift of this moving story, adapted from a letter she sent yesterday to the parents of her students at Tigerlily Preschool. (It turns out to be a story within a story within a letter within a blog post!) Enjoy—and may your long winter nights be filled with light.


December 20, 2013

I’m still moving through all the layers of the story I’m sharing here today. It touches many different parts of me and my work here. You might already know that Reggio thinking, which I admire so much, began with a school started in Italy built literally from the rubble of World War II. Such a respectful, empowered view of learning arose from terrible circumstances. Of the many stories I'm learning in my own teaching journey, you could say Reggio thinking hooked me from the start as I'm a sucker for a good phoenix tale. . . .

Word had it that at Villa Cella, the people had gotten together to put up a school for the young children; they had pulled out the bricks from the bombed-out houses and had used them to build the walls of the school. Only a few days has passed since the Liberation and everything was still violently topsy-turvy . . .
     I felt hesitant, frightened. My logical capabilities, those of a young elementary school teacher overwhelmed by the events, led me to conclude that, if it were true (and how I hoped it were!), more than anomalous or improbable, it was out of this world . . . maybe someone from Cella would show up. No one did.
     That is why I got on my bicycle and rode out to Villa Cella. I got confirmation from a farmer just outside the village; he pointed out the place, a long way ahead. There were two piles of sand and bricks, a wheelbarrow full of hammers, shovels and hoes. Behind a curtain made of rugs to shield them from the sun, two women were hammering the old mortar off the bricks.
     The news was true, and the truth was there, for all to see on this sunny spring day, in the uneven but stubborn hammering of these two women. One of them looked up at me and waited; I was a stranger, someone from the city, maybe they could tell from the part in my hair or my low-cut brown shoes. “We’re not crazy! If you really want to see, come on Saturday or Sunday, when we’re all here. Al fom da boun l’asilo (we’re really going to make this school)!” . . .
     I had the honor of experiencing the rest of the story . . . and it remained an uninterrupted lesson given by men and women whose ideas were still intact, who had understood long before I had that history can be changed, and is changed by taking possession if it, starting with the destiny of the children.

. . . a new educational experience can emerge from the least expected circumstances . . .

—excerpts from “History, Ideas, and Basic Principles:
An Interview with Loris Malaguzzi,” in
The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation

Willa: (Upon arriving, handing me a small gift to unwrap; she and I are holding something wrapped in tissue) Look, can you see a little bit of golden peeking out?

Marie: I can, I can. (We unwrap further.)

Willa: It makes me think of a bird. (Gesturing to the folded paper that is with it) Read the words that tell you about it!

I read the paper to myself.  Here is some of what the paper says: “This candleholder spreads peaceful light from the remains of a brass bomb shell. Handcrafted by artisans of Cambodia’s Rajana Association. . . . ‘When we make jewelry [like this] then we know our country has peace,’ said one young silversmith.”

Willa gives me a hug and skips off to play. I watch the children, holding the candlestick for a while, until I call the children in for circle.

Marie: I want to tell a story that takes place in a far-away place called Cambodia. The people there were a having a big terrible problem where some people thought one thing and some people thought something else. And the people didn’t do talking about it. They got mad, mad, mad, mad and had a war.

Daphne: What’s a war?

Willa: It’s when you get so angry you’re like (waving arms like sword play) and set off bombs.

Marie: Big big fighting, mmmhmm.

Emerson: Yeah, and sometimes wars have those truck things that shoot out bullets. And bombs, they explode.

Willa: [In Cambodia] there were some bombs that didn’t explode, right?

Nayan: And there’s some places far away that didn’t have problems.

Kids name some far-away places.

Marie: This story is about the place called Cambodia.

Nayan: And there was bullet world.

Marie: The people there were having the terrible problems with each other. But then the people thought it was too much fighting and wanted it to stop. The people that thought one thing and the people that thought a different thing started talking to each other. And about how to fix the problems. Like how kids say, “I’ll be nice to you if you’ll be nice to me.” Finally the people did that. They said, “I’ll be nice to you if you’ll be nice to me,” and it stopped the fighting. But, because of all the fighting they’d had, there were still some bombs where they lived. So some people had the job to go find the bombs and put them away so they couldn’t hurt anybody.

Emerson: Spray them with water to try to kill the fire in them!

Marie: Yeah, they have ways to make them not dangerous anymore and had workers to do it. And, the people also wanted to make stuff. So when they had made the pieces of the bomb not dangerous anymore people thought and they thought and they thought. And they thought: hmmm, we had these big problems . . . and now things are better . . .

Emerson: (Really excited) And! And I know! How ’bout they make something out of those bombs?! And fill them up with water so it’s safe!

Willa: Yeah! And the water can just squirt out if there is a fire, (with a button like) push push push!

Marie: They did just exactly that, they did decide to make something good out of the stuff that had been the bombs.

Willa: They made a candle holder! They made something beautiful. This is something that my mother got for Marie that’s really really delicate.

Daphne: Is it her Christmas present?

Willa: It is her Christmas present! I wrapped it.

Emerson: It was in a box, right?

Willa: Yeah, and I wrapped it with blue paper, and I used a yellow ribbon for her.

Marie: We can pass the candle holder around before we light it ’cause I would like to share it with everybody.

Kids pass the candle holder around the circle, quiet and focused.

Marie: Everyone take one little scoouch back so we can light it, all see it, and be safe about the candle flame. (Getting ready to light the candle) Oh, I’m feeling so many feelings! That this candle used to be a bomb for hurting. And then people started talking, and made things better. And then people decided to make something beautiful out of it.

Nayan: Should you light it now?

Willa: It might do burning?

Marie: Well, it can’t do any more hurting now, it’s a candle holder, now that the people have made it into something wonderful.

Willa: It might burn up the metal?

Daphne: Or it might go all over the house?

Marie: Now it can’t be anything but a beautiful candle for looking at. I’m sure it’s completely safe. (Being careful like we are about candles when we light one together, I would add, though in the conversation I am certain the kids are needing to know that the candle can’t be a bomb anymore). This candle has been on a very big journey. It was a bomb, it used to be able to do hurting, but then the hurting stopped and people made it into a new thing, a wonderful thing. And then a mama saw it and thought it would be a good present. To be a beautiful candle to be special at our school. And a kid put it in a pretty striped box and wrapped it up in blue paper and tied it with a yellow string and gave it to me. And I opened it up and learned the candle’s story, and now I’m telling the story of the candle to you children.

Emerson: I wish I had it.

Marie: We’ll enjoy it, all of us together, and that’s the best part now of this candle story. It’s a pretty wonderful thing.

I light the candle and we’re singing together:

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
I’m gonna let it shine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Won’t let anyone (whsssh!) it out, I’m gonna let it shine . . .
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine . . .
Take this light around the world, I’m gonna let it shine . . .

We sing “This Little Light of Mine” with one finger for a candle, the other hand spread behind it, “to shine the light.”

The Something Beautiful candle
Marie Catrett

Learning to document children’s learning (Part 3)

This is the conclusion of Marie Catrett’s three-part guest post on the methods and results of daily documentation at Tigerlily Preschool. If you haven’t already, be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 first. And feel free to share your own thoughts or questions for Marie by clicking on “Post a Comment” below.

We return for a second visit to the train station. This time Elias is on his feet, exploring everywhere, bursting with excitement.

Elias: (At the station, before its arrival) Waiting for the train to come! Waiting for the train to blow its horn! It’s the train, it’s the train! Talked to the conductor!

I tell the children that I will take pictures of anything they think is interesting. I notice that on our second visit we’re paying more attention to other vechicles and people.

Wyatt: A man driving a truck and a part of the train.
Willa: A train and a honking thing.
Emerson: See a guy driving it.
Waytt: In the back there’s a black part.
Willa: Yeah, that’s where they would sit.
Emerson: For bags!
Willa: Or anybody could sit in the back.

Willa and her mom visit with some passengers from the train.

Nayeli visits with the station master.


Reflecting more about our second trip to the train station, we listen to the recording I made of the train’s arrival.

Listening to the sound of the train arriving at the station.

Wyatt: He said “tickets”!
Elias: Ding ding ding! It’s the train sound! It’s the train! (Running)
Emerson: (Whistle sounds) A train!

Wyatt asks me to play the clip again and again.


Elias notices a stack of laundry baskets near us on the blue rug. Yesterday Wyatt and then Emerson discovered that they could climb into the red basket that usually holds paper for painting. Paired up with my black laundry basket, climbing in and out became a popular thing to do yesterday. It was pretty hard to wait to climb inside; whichever kid was in the basket wanted to have a really long turn. Wyatt told me that he wished we could have more laundry baskets at school, and would I write that down?


I keep what the children call my “Little Notebook” on me at all times, tucked handily into an apron pocket for writing down their words. If I leave my Little Notebook lying around, a kid is sure to notice and come running to me, full of urgency and great care. Here, Marie, you forgot your Little Notebook! Willa led the way in wanting her very own Little Notebook, and now anybody who wants a Little Notebook gets one. I hear a lot of “hmmm, maybe I need to write that down.”


Willa makes notes about a friend’s construction.

Now Elias notices and unstacks these new baskets, climbing inside one.

A “play explosion” then takes place—laughing, hooting, rocking, crawling . . .
After a while I sit again next to Elias on the sofa. He joined in at the beginning for a bit and then decided to watch. We are both transfixed by all the stories that are forming and bouncing off each other in the center of the room. Often four children are involved, sometimes pairing up two and two, then rejoining again as a group. Nayeli, Wyatt, and Willa all seem to take turns leading the play. Emerson is very eager and willing to support the next piece of the narrative, joining in with so much joy.

This play keeps shifting again and again, ending up with “going to the train station.” Nayeli is the driver. They go and go, then all jump out, then jump back in to “drive some more to the station.”


Elias makes up a new song, “The Wheels on the Passenger Train,” which I play on the guitar and we sing together. We add “The Wheels on the Passenger Train” to our song list.


Wyatt starts laundry basket play again and announces that he’s playing train station. I tell him: Come tell me if you’d like to hear the train sounds when you play. Wyatt is excited about this idea and asks to hear the audio clip.

Elias: I have to go catch . . . I have to go!
Wyatt: Quickly! Elias: Ding, ding! (Train horn honks) Ding ding!
Emerson: Again again! We start the recording again.
Elias: Train, train . . . I have to go catch the train! (Train horn) The train!!!
Willa: (Climbing into a basket) I’m a conductor.


Basket play is happening nearly every day, directed entirely by the children. I watch Elias choose to get right in the middle of this joyous, active play and I am delighted to see the connections that train play has created in our classroom. This is my goal for all the kids: our school is a special place that honors and celebrates who you are. And what shall we play today?

We look forward to our third visit to the train station, returning later this month.

© Marie Catrett

Learning to document children’s learning (Part 2)

Marie Catrett’s story continues, documenting the conversations, activities, and discoveries of Elias and his friends at Tigerlily Preschool as they explore the world of trains. (If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.)

Marie: We are on a trip today to visit the train station. Could we take a look at your suitcase?
Woman at the station: Sure.
Nayeli: Does yours have a bar that goes up? For pulling?
Woman at the station: Yes.
Marie: Do you think we could see?
Woman at the station: Okay. (She raises up her handle.)
Nayeli: Like mine!


[Click the play button below to listen to the sounds of the train station!]

Elias (Delighted) It’s the train! The Amtrak train! Look at those tracks.
Nayeli: I see the actual train.
Elias: Is it the 107 train?
Marie: You know, it has a number on it right here actually. One-one-four, this is the 114 train.
Nayeli: Headlights! Here are two headlights and another headlight and then two more.
Elias: The train was blowing its horn.
Emerson: ‘Member I saw a locomotive. I said hi to the train!
Marie: Did it make a noise?
Emerson: I was worried. Went chhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Marie: A big noise?
Emerson: A- CHOOOOOOOO CHOOOOOOOO! Maked noise! It made a big noise! A- CHOOOOOOOO CHOOOOOOO! It was a passenger train. A Amtrak train (is a) passenger train. Saw locomotives!

Our first visit to the station. Elias is interested but cautious: he wants to be held by mom during our time there.

Nayeli: She has a suitcase and a pillow! She brought a pillow to sleep with!
Emerson: (The passengers) Went inside to go to sleep on the train. Need to wake up. Snoring. They were snoring.
Elias: Going to have dinner! They’re going to have dinner together in the dining car! Ding ding ding ding!

Back at school, train songs have become part of our song list, and we sing them often, at the children’s request.

Elias: Sing “Engine Number Nine”!

Engine, Engine Number Nine
Going down Chicago Line
If the train should jump the track
Do you want your money back?
Yes? No? Maybe so!


Marie: (Talking to Elias when he selects his Legos) What kind of train will you play today?
Elias: It’s a commuter train. It wants to go to the airport. The train wants to take people to Pei Wei (restaurant).

Elias: The train is coming out of the train station. See, it’s an Amtrak train. Bye bye train! Mmmmmm-mmmmmm (making the sound of the train horn).
Willa: (Running up) I want to come to the train station!
Marie: Oh, maybe you will be an Amtrak train?
Willa: First I need to get far away.
Marie: Maybe we will hear your horn.


Emerson decides to make a train out of clay.

Emerson: Make a track. Tank car, tank car! Make a freight car. Make the freight on it. Make a track . . .


Elias, Nayeli, and Wyatt build vehicles together.

Elias: And big ones, and big ones! (Jumping up with excitement) Are those trains ready? They’re going pretty fast!

Stay tuned for Part 3, coming June 23.

© Marie Catrett