Trapping Leprechauns: so much to do, so little time


A spontaneous group project grew into a lesson in creativity, design, engineering, and psychology.

I had a plan going into school today. We’ve been exploring innovative artists. Jackson Pollock was on the agenda, and I was planning  an activity where the children could stand in the middle of a huge canvas and explore art as a process- using lots of different tools and textures and paints. I stopped by the grocery store on my way to work, to grab some whisks to use as tools for applying paint. At the front of the store there was a big St. Patrick’s Day display. Green food, Guinness, and plastic pots of gold.

On a whim, I decided I would share St. Patrick’s Day with the class. Half of my heritage is Irish, and  I’ve always enjoyed the day myself. We have a diverse group of students, so I knew many of them wouldn’t have heard about it. We also have an Irish student enrolled, and I was looking forward to talking about the holiday with him. I thought it would be fun to touch on some of the cultural traditions associated with the day, and with Ireland. I bought some shamrock stickers, and little brownies with green sprinkles.  Before the students arrived my co-teacher and I pulled out some traditional Irish folk stories and leprechaun tales, and added them to the bookshelf. This was still intended to be a side note to our other plans for the day.

Sometimes, things grow beyond our control and take on a life of their own. This was one of those times. We read one of the folk tales at morning circle time. Only a few of the children had heard of leprechauns before. They loved the idea. From the shamrocks and the Irish dancing, to the idea of tiny people who love gold and play tricks. They loved the magic, clever shenanigans, and riddles. Their eyes were bright with excitement and they couldn’t stop asking questions. They talked enthusiastically about what they would do with gold, and whether any of them had ever seen a fairy or a leprechaun before. In the midst of all of the excitement I turned to my co-teacher and whispered- “Let’s make leprechaun traps!” She loved the idea. When you are a somewhat impulsive and creative person it’s a real gift to have flexible co-workers. “Keep them busy!” I called, and ran into the storage room. I pulled out a bunch of tissue boxes, felt, Popsicle sticks, paper, sequins, glitter, bottle caps, and other treasures that seemed fit for the project. When I returned I invited the children “if anyone is interested in building a leprechaun trap, join me at the tables.” There was a stampede. Every single child madly dashed to the art tables in a creative fervor, and began gathering supplies.

Once they were settled I told them “Guess what? This is a surprise leprechaun party. It even surprised me, because I just now decided it was a party. SURPRISE!” and I passed out the brownies and stickers. Their excitement and happiness was tangible.  What could be better than a surprise party that even surprised the teachers? As they ate their brownies, we thought about what a leprechaun trap would need. This is what the children came up with as a group:

It would need to be hidden or camouflaged in some way, because leprechauns are clever.
It would need to be small, because leprechauns are small.
It would need some type of door or opening.
The leprechaun would either need to walk inside voluntarily, or the trap would need to surprise him- either with a trap door, or by falling on him.
If a leprechaun is going to check out the trap, we would need to add things that leprechauns would find interesting.

As the children began to build, they came up with a variety of innovative designs for their traps. Some of them made little houses or hotels or restaurants. These became tiny buildings with furniture and doors and signs, that looked like they were part of a leprechaun village. Some of them covered their boxes in sparkles or gold, because leprechauns like gold. One student filled her box entirely with cotton balls “because eventually the leprechaun will get tired and then it will look for someplace cozy.” One student had the idea to create a beautiful pretend leprechaun girl (like a mannequin) to lure any leprechauns looking for romance. As they worked out how to construct these traps, and used glue and sticks and tape, they became architects, and designers. Seeing things from the point of view of the leprechaun was an exercise in psychology and empathy. We discussed whether any of us might actually catch one, and if so, would we be willing to split the treasure? This was math. Probability and statistics and predictions. They remembered our story and used to to guess what might happen. They used signs and arrows and drew shamrocks and wrote notes to show the leprechauns where to go. This was a literacy exercise- reading, and writing, and storytelling. The entire time they worked, they talked through what they were doing. Explaining how the traps worked, and offering ideas to the students sitting around them. One child would throw out an idea, “What if we put a pot of gold inside?” and another child would build on it “Oh yes, these gold sequins could look like coins, or maybe we can cover a stone in glitter…” The room was abuzz with creative energy for a full hour. We delayed snack time and our second circle time so that they would have more time to work. When it was finally time to clean up, about a third of the children vowed that they would continue perfecting their traps at home.

We brought our traps outside, and then had a picnic in the grass. During our picnic, at the request of the children, we read another leprechaun tale. In the story, the leprechaun uses his wits to get out of trouble. When the book was over, and everyone was done eating, the children began to play. I watched them act out the stories, search for four leaf clovers, and hunt under bushes and trees with the hopes of glimpsing a little person.

At the end of the day, the children headed home covered in glitter, and glue, and paint. They were wide-eyed with excitement and stories to tell. Each set of little hands proudly and carefully carried a one-of-a-kind leprechaun trap. I can’t wait to hear what they catch.

As I stayed after class for a few extra minutes to clean up the aftermath of our project, I reflected on the day. I was so proud of their creativity and ingenuity, and the way every child had been included and worked together. Yes, we went off course from the plan. Very far off course actually. But at the end of the day they  had discovered many new things about art as a process, and so much more. My book about Jackson Pollock, and my Pollock art activity will still be there tomorrow. And tomorrow I will show up with my intentions and plans and supplies, and I will set my course. And the little explorers might steer us in a totally different direction. I will go willingly, seeking adventure, and following their excitement and interests like the North Star.

What if….

“What if I’m an ice queen, and you are my cat, but then I make you turn into ice with my wand.” Two preschool students are gesturing wildly with sticks as they play underneath a large fir tree. “Yeah,” adds the second child “but what if I have my own powers and if I point my wand at something and say ‘un-freeze’ then it is un-frozen.” The first child pauses, considers this, and nods. Then she exclaims “OK! Let’s GO!” and in a flash they are gone, running in the wild frenzy of children in the meadow.

Hearing the way four-year-olds pose alternate “what-if” realities is always amazing to me. They work together, trying out different scenarios, and alternating who controls the way their role playing will evolve. They are free to explore every possibility, expanding on ideas they like, and discarding ones that they don’t. This is how problem solving and imagination develop through play.

Sometimes as a teacher I can forget how much I have to learn from the children, and how well things can go when I step out of the role of instructor, and into the role of facilitating their dreams and creativity. Today, as I observed this imaginary “what-if” game, I was reminded of the importance of asking myself “what-if” a little more often. Saying no, and giving constant reminders, is one of the most challenging aspects of working with children. My least favorite moment is when I say something two or three times, and I look around and nobody is hearing me. Maybe because it’s loud. Maybe because there is something more exciting going on somewhere else. Maybe… deep breath…. because I am nagging them and they have tuned me out. When this happens, I need to ask myself “what-if”. What I made a change here? Maybe I need to let go of a rule that is already being ignored, or maybe I need to find a new way to communicate. Maybe I need to shift something in our routine to set the children up for success. Sometimes this means giving an extra 2 minute warning about what is about to happen. Or it might mean eliminating an unnecessary transition during the day. Sometimes it means I have to let go of my adult agenda, and see things from a child’s perspective.

I try my hardest to listen, to find ways to say YES. There was most definitely a time when a child might have come to me asking for glitter and tape, and I would have said “No, we aren’t using those today.” In my head I would have been thinking “What if it makes a mess? What if everyone sees the glitter and tape and they crowd the table and argue? What if nobody does the other project I prepared? What if this becomes more work for me somehow? What if doing this messes up my plan, and my schedule?” But I have learned how to put those negative what-ifs to bed. Because they aren’t about teaching. And they aren’t about the child. Those what ifs are about me. My point of view, and my problems. Today, I re-frame my thinking and make it about the child. I say to myself: What if I listen, and support this creativity? What if it helps them to make something wonderful? What if today could be their best day of school yet? and so instead of giving them no for an answer, I say “YES!” and together we go get the glitter and tape. And because they aren’t off limits, the children know they can use them when they feel they need them. So they don’t ask every day. And when they do ask, they have a good reason, and they end up making something they feel very proud of. So today I challenge all of the parents and teachers to be better grown ups, by following the lead of the children and asking ourselves, “What-if….”

When I started working with this group of children there was “no playing with sticks” rule already in place. Because “what if they poke each other? And what if someone loses an eye?” Well…. what if they don’t? Fingers are capable of poking people and eyes as well, and somehow they manage to control ten of those without too many problems. Don’t they at least deserve a chance to try? Because, you know, “what if”…. what if they come up with a new game? What if they need to dig a hole, or test the viscosity of some mud? What if they build a machine? What if they need a magic wand? What if we stopped having to say NO STICKS every five minutes, and took a deep breath and let them play? What if, when we yell “NO” we are interrupting a child as they are transforming into a character with a scepter, or a light saber, or a broom, or they are heading on an adventure with a fishing pole, or a walking stick? Maybe turning a stick into that pretend object will help their game evolve and to solve whatever problem has them stuck at the moment.

In our classroom I don’t give out a “No” unless I can explain the reasoning to the child in the same sentence. And if the child has a different idea, I ask myself “what if we give that a try?” What if we suspend our fears of what could go wrong, and we entertain new possibilities? What if we trust the children to do the right thing? What if we communicate our apprehension and see what they have to say? So I let the children know that grown ups were worried they might get hurt, and together we developed some ground rules for playing with sticks. So far, we have not had a single stick related injury all school year. Every child still has two eyeballs, fully intact. I think this is because the children value being trusted and included in the decision making process. They appreciate being listened to, and they listen in return.For the most part, children are careful with one another, and inherently kind, so nobody is actively trying to stab their friends.

If we had never changed our rule about sticks, and I had made them leave the chalk on the sidewalk, we would have missed a beautiful moment today. A moment where every single child in the class joined together in a pretend campfire. They looked for kindling, and firewood, and stoked pretend coals. One little boy painstakingly used the chalk to color the sticks on top of the pile orange and red and yellow, like flames. Another group hunted for long sticks to roast pretend hot dogs. The blue and white chalk became the marshmallows, roasting for s’mores. “What if we make one hundred s’mores…” I heard a small voice wonder. “Yeah,” added her friend “and then what if we look for shooting stars.” And then, at ten in the morning, under a sunny sky, that’s what we all did.

photo 5

Just Beneath the Surface

In January, February, and March, the Pacific Northwest days march on, damp and dark. There is a general sogginess to the world. I used to think that there was nothing outside but bare branches. Everything seemed dead and asleep. When I started to investigate the wet wintry landscape with the children we began to see life everywhere. Tiny. Hiding. Resting. Waiting. Reminding us of cycles, and the sunshine on the horizon. Lurking just beneath the surface.

We set up an incubator and selected our eggs. We cared for them and monitored the temperature and humidity, turned them, and counted the days. We talked about statistics and probability and predictions. Two eggs hatched. We talked about fractions and babies and joy and disappointment, and how things can be fragile and strong at the same time.

We set up an incubator and selected our eggs. We cared for them and monitored the temperature and humidity, turned them, and counted the days. We talked about statistics and probability and predictions. Two eggs hatched. Four didn’t. We talked about fractions and babies and joy and disappointment, and how things can be fragile and strong at the same time.

This week, some of our chicks hatched. Some didn’t. We talked about embryos and how we all start as cells and look very much the same. We wondered what happened inside of the eggs that didn’t hatch. We wondered if chicks have something like a bellybutton from where they are attached to the yolk as they grow (they do), and talked about why they don’t need milk and can eat solid food. We wondered if they know they don’t have a Mama hen, and how they might be feeling. We were amazed by how strong they are when they are so small and so new. We touched them and held them and sang to them and watched them fall asleep in our hands.

We welcomed a boy goat in the fall. We watched the Mama get bigger and bigger. We can see the babies moving, and feel them as they push one another and bump into our hands. A child shared that the babies are both real and pretend right now.

We welcomed a boy goat in the fall. We watched the Mama get bigger and bigger. We can see the babies moving, and feel them as they push one another and bump into our hands. A child shared that the babies are both real and pretend right now.

We noticed how big our goat is getting. We see legs and a head and try to guess how many babies she is growing. Maybe one, or two, or even three. We remembered when our friends and family members had babies in their tummies, and thought about how we used to fold up like that too. We wondered if the baby goats can talk to each other in their water world inside their Mama. We wondered if she will have enough for milk for them if there are more than two. We watch her eat next to the kid she had last year. We wondered if last year’s baby knows what is coming, and how she feels about being a sister. Someone asked how a baby goes poop while it’s floating in the water. I told them that the umbilical cord gives them nutrients and also takes the waste away, so the Mama eats and poops for the babies. The children then asked what happens if that special cord gets pinched so nothing can get through, so we talked about that as well. Then we talked about how bodies and babies are amazing, and if they love these things maybe they can be midwives or nurses or doctors when they get bigger.

We check the soil and the branches and notice as they change from week to week. In Winter things seem dead, but really they are just getting ready. The leaves and buds appear during the shortest darkest days, and get ready. Each week they change a little bit. They are wrapped up tight, like little presents. Now, they are ready to explode.

We check the soil and the branches and notice as they change from week to week. In Winter things seem dead, but really they are just getting ready. The leaves and buds appear during the shortest darkest days. Each week they change a little bit. They are wrapped up tight, like little presents. Now, they are ready to explode.

The earth and the trees are getting ready to be green and bright and put on a show. We watch the new life emerging from seeds and sprouts, and see the trees getting ready to unfurl their leaves, and we are excited. In order to notice these changes we had to go back over and over to the same trees and dirt and secret places, and watch the way they were affected by weather and the way they changed over time. Today there was a flood, and a field became a wetland. We wonder how this will affect the plants and animals we have been watching.

Tips for Picky Eaters


In my years working with families and small children, the things parents seem to worry about most are the basics: eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom. How often do they nap? For how long? When will you start solids? What about potty training? Where does your baby sleep? Does he sleep all night?

Why are such basic needs of such interest? Probably because they affect every moment of the day for our kids, and we want to help our children spend their days being happy and well adjusted, developing skills that will make them well rounded adults. We can’t eat or sleep or go to the bathroom FOR our children, so instead we end up worrying about how and when they will do these things. And these basic needs can affect every moment of our time parenting as well. A child who needs to eat, or sleep, or poop, and cannot do so, is not a fun child to be spending time with. I have seen the way that having an extremely picky eater can stress a family. Parents become frustrated. They worry about their child getting enough vitamins and adequate nutrition and fiber. They often stop going to restaurants because their child refuses to sit through meals that are of no interest. It can affect every meal decision, and parents often feel very judged and blamed.

Listening to NPR on my drive home last week I heard a great interview with cookbook author Sally Sampson, who founded an organization promoting families cooking together; and Dr. David Ludwig, who is the author of the book “Ending the Food Fight” and works for Boston Children’s Hospital, specializing in Obesity Prevention. The topic on the table was picky eaters. How to prevent pickiness, deal with it when it happens, and create healthful food attitudes in our children. One of the things I appreciate about Sally Sampson’s advice  is that she encourages parents to relax a bit in their meal time approach- she advises to cook just one meal for the whole family and no separate meals for picky little ones. She also follows my personal rule of not getting into power struggles or forcing kids to try things. As a parent and an educator, it’s nice to be told to relax and do less once and awhile. The tips she offers are simple and promote healthful food habits for the entire family, and her tone is very positive and constructive. Here is the interview in full, if you’d like to give it a listen:

This piece stood out to me because Ludwig and Sampson offered some insightful and very specific tips beyond the usual, vague, “keep offering a variety of foods” and “they’ll grow out of it”. They actually spent time with a family, working with their picky preschooler, and share how in juts six weeks they were able to change his behaviors so drastically that he became extremely adventurous eater.  Their work is chronicled in a blog for the New York Times, called The Picky Eater Project (excerpt and link below).

After I had finished listening, one of Dr. Ludwig’s comments stayed in my head (the preschoolers call this “an ear worm” – it’s a little voice that gets in your ear and won’t leave):

“You know, we live in an environment that makes junk food, hyper-sweetened foods the norm. And by comparison an apple doesn’t taste sweet and a vegetable seems completely inedible…You know, there’s a natural developmental cycle here at work. Children are born with a fear of unfamiliar foods, which protects them from eating something toxic. But they’re also programmed to develop an increasingly broad set of taste preferences. If not, children would die of starvation after weaning.The problem is our modern junk food, hyper-sweetened diet tends to keep taste buds in tantalized state.”

When I heard this I immediately thought about the many times I see preschoolers arrive at school with a carefully packed lunchbox containing things like sliced apples, carrot sticks, cheddar cheese, and a “treat”. Maybe a package of M & Ms or fruit snacks, or some Oreos. For any parent who has ever packed this, and instructed your child to eat the fruit and veggies before the treat, I’m just going to give it to you straight: they ignore you, and they probably trash the fruit and veggies. Kids aren’t good at impulse control. They see it. They want it. They aren’t good at waiting. So they eat it. And after they eat something very calorie dense, that is enhanced with  corn syrup or lots of refined sugar they are not going to have much of an appetite for the apple. In contrast it seems bland or sour, and the carrot sticks don’t taste like anything at all. Not to mention, it sets up a punishment/reward attitude about food. Eat your fruit before your treat. It implies that the fruit itself is not a treat, and is something to be endured. If I’m asked for lunchbox advice I usually say pack a variety of good choices and give your child the control to eat whatever they want from their lunchbox with no guilt. I’m not saying don’t pack a cookie. Go ahead and pack a favorite cookie once in awhile. But it doesn’t need to be an obligatory part of every meal. Pack an appropriate portion size so they are still hungry for their other food.

For some fresh ideas and constructive advice, here are The Picky Eater Project’s “12 Tips to Take Back the Dinner Table”:

1. If you don’t want your child to eat it, don’t bring it home. “When it comes to food,” says Dr. David Ludwig, the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and the author of “Ending the Food Fight,”    “one of the pillars of parenting is to protect the home environment. Attention to this non-coercive measure can prevent eating issues in the first place, or help defuse problems that have already developed.” You decide what foods are welcome.

2. Institute a “one-meal rule.” If you don’t want to be a short order cook, making a separate meal for different children, stop. Keep the messaging positive: Tell your kids that the house rule is now one delicious dinner for everyone. “Parents need to parent,” advises Bill Dietz, M.D., the former director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Food related responsibilities in families should go like this: Parents are in charge of what foods are offered at home, and children can choose to eat it or not. If a child rejects the food, it is not the parents’ responsibility to offer something else.” It’s fine to make sure the meal includes at least one thing that’s generally acceptable (even if that’s just plain pasta), and you should decide in advance what’s acceptable to you after dinner for a child who didn’t eat (a choice that’s distinctly different for toddlers than for teenagers).

3. A little hunger can go a long way. Snacks are fine but don’t overdo them. If children arrive at the dinner table hungry, they are more likely to eat what is in front of them. I routinely put salad on the table before the entrée and found that salad eating spiked as a result.

4. Shop and cook together. Involve your children in every step as much as possible. Take them to the grocery store and ask them to pick any vegetable/fruit they want. Have them help you cook. Depending on their age, this can mean counting out cherry tomatoes to add to a salad, stirring, and later making a meal on their own. Even setting the table instills ownership.

5. Meet them where they are. If your children  love roast chicken, don’t start the “one-meal rule” by making exotic pork dishes with a lot of sauces. Make basic food you know they like. This way it will not feel like deprivation. Additionally, make sure they can personalize parts of their meal: If you’re making burritos/omelets/burgers, have all the fillings/toppings in little bowls so they can choose what to add.

6. Don’t force them to eat anything. There are many schools of thought about this. Some people feel you should make them “just take one bite.” I don’t agree and think that this has a very negative implication and tends to backfire. Instead say, “Wow, these roasted brussels sprouts/shredded carrots/spinach pancakes are amazing.” Children who won’t taste don’t get nudged or judged. The 10th time you serve them, your child may, unprompted, take a bite.

7. Talk about what it takes to grow and cook food. Breed respect. When children understand that someone had to plant a seed and harvest a vegetable even before it gets to your kitchen, they will more fully appreciate what goes into making a meal. Even better, plant a little garden.

8. Be consistent but not rigid. Be sure everyone knows what the rules are, but if your rule is a home-cooked dinner every night and you’re exhausted, cut yourself some slack: get take-out. Eat breakfast for dinner. Pull everything out of the fridge and see who can make what.

9. Be a good role model. Children  take their cues from their parents: if you don’t like something, don’t pretend to like it but express your pleasure that someone – even you — went to the trouble to prepare it.

10. Play. Experiment. Try different food “games” outside of dinnertime. We’ve had a lot of success with games where everyone can make a lot of choices and mix and match:

Vegetable Tasting Extravaganza: trying many vegetables, each prepared in multiple ways. My Plate Scavenger Hunt: show them MyPlate and have them identify what goes into each quadrant. Raw Vegetable and Dip Experiment: trying different dips with different raw vegetables

11. Don’t refer to anyone as a “picky eater” or make a big deal out of their “picky eating.” If your child doesn’t eat carrots, don’t stop serving them, or when your child is a guest at someone else’s, don’t say: My child doesn’t like carrots. If you define them, it makes it much harder for them to change.

12. Use positive peer pressure. When my children were in elementary school, their friends ate whatever my kids ate when they came to our house. I literally never had a child say: “I don’t eat hummus. I don’t like carrots.” Seeing a peer eat an unfamiliar food automatically makes it safer. You’ll be amazed at how many children will eat something because they see another child eating it.

The rest of the advice and stories shared on the Picky Eater Plan are great. To read the full blog post, and the entire series, or find more tips for encouraging adventurous, healthful eating,  here is the link to the New York Times Picky Eater Project: Post&action=Click&contentCollection=Style&pgtype=Blogs&region=Header