Early Childhood Today: Donna, what kinds of things do you do in your program to help children learn about their bodies?

Donna Brackins: I'll start with the way we "magnify" how each of us is physically unique. Using a "magnifying lens" made of clear acetate, we examine hair color, eye color, skin tones, and so forth. Then we explore our senses, including the way each sense works. We have taste tests to determine where the different taste buds are in our mouths, and "smell matching" contests. We investigate how people cope when they lack the use of one of their senses. We explore learning to use American Sign Language to finger spell our names. We learn about the way the bumps represent letters and then try to spell our names in Braille. We also explore using canes, crutches, and wheelchairs to navigate around the room.

ECT: The idea of giving children the opportunity to work with real equipment is interesting. How have they responded to this strategy?

Brackins: Any time children can use real equipment it adds authenticity to the learning experience. We've found that giving them the opportunity to work with, and have exposure to, magnifying glasses, hearing aids, glasses frames, wheelchairs, canes, and crutches adds that special glue that makes the children feel they're part of the same human team.

ECT: What about gross-motor activities? What kinds of activities do you include in your curriculum?

Brackins: We spend ten minutes of every two-and-a-half-hour day exercising. If at all possible, we spend that time outside. We have slides, monkey bars, ramps, ladders, swinging bridges, and balance beams. When it's not possible to go outside, we exercise inside. We spend those ten minutes in active, structured play. We use movement tapes, beanbag tapes, parachute tapes, and so forth. Participation in these activities helps the children discover more about their own strengths and their own bodies.

ECT: We know that promoting good health habits is an important way for children to learn to care for and respect their bodies. How do you emphasize these in your program?

Brackins: We take advantage of our daily classroom routines. Activities such as washing our hands after bathrooming, blowing our noses, or playing outside help to cut down on the number of infections swirling through the kindergarten classroom. Other routines, such as hanging up jackets, unpacking backpacks, or putting belongings away, help to develop self-reliance and independence.

We feel so strongly that the key to good health is balance. So we encourage the children to be well-rounded and well-balanced. The concepts of sharing, taking turns, and helping each other are stressed in our program. We build respect through the sharing of each other's stories. Acceptance of differences, as well as similarities, helps children build tolerance and respect. We plan for experiences that encompass all areas of their development.

ECT: How do you involve families in increasing children's knowledge about their bodies and supporting their overall well-being?

Brackins: Daily communication, quarterly newsletters, family conferences, and volunteer opportunities are some of the ways we involve parents. We've found that having a variety of strategies to reach parents is the most effective way to emphasize the importance of a child's developing awareness of self and how one works cooperatively in the world.

Donna Brackins has been teaching at the Thunder Hill Elementary School in Columbia, MD, for 25 years. She was nominated for Columbia's Best Teacher Award in 1999 and 2000.