By Sara Zacuto

“Children need to be loved as they are, and for who they are. When that happens, they can accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short. And with this basic need met, they’re also freer to accept (and help) other people. Unconditional love, in short, is what children require in order to flourish.”

~Alfie Kohn

A long time ago, early in my days as a teacher, my friend and mentor told me something that has stuck with me through the years. She said:

“Parents just want to know their child is loved.”

I believe she was helping me prepare for my very first round of parent-teacher conferences, and calming my nerves with this pearl of wisdom. I didn’t have children of my own at the time, so even though her thought made sense to me on an intellectual level, it didn’t carry the same meaning that it carries now. Over the years I have reflected on her words, and they have since resonated so deeply in my experiences as a mother and teacher. Her simple yet profound statement has, in part, informed my practices in relationship building with families, and put an unconditionally loving filter on my view of all the children I’ve cared for in my many years of teaching…especially the challenging ones. And, of course, I have found these words to be true as a mother, as I want for my own children to be seen, respected and yes, loved by the other people who care for them.

I am constantly in a state of challenging, and thinking about my identity as a teacher and mother (sometimes too much, or too critically) and I’ve gone in and out of what I call grooves of “getting it.” I’ll have weeks where my connections feel strong and deep, things kind of roll, and click. I’ll feel confident and can handle curve-balls being thrown my way. Those are the weeks where all the tools I’ve learned how to utilize seem to be easily accessed, I can call up the right language and attitudes in the face of struggles. Then I’ll experience other times where I feel a tangible distance from others, or a general lack of patience and ease (all of which I can usually attribute to tiredness, anxiety or hunger), and the path of “loving well” becomes much more elusive and slippery. But this pattern of highs and lows that has emerged continues to teach me how vital forgiveness (of self and others) is, and also how critical it is to develop and hone the art of repairing and hitting the reset button after I’ve made mistakes. It takes a conscious effort to step back onto the path.


I was recently inspired by watching an interview with author and educator, Ann Pelo, whose work focuses on reflective pedagogical practice, social justice and ecological teaching and learning and the art of mentoring.  She describes, with such eloquence, embracing a curious mindset about children. She breaks down and re-frames the notion of a teacher as an instructor who aims to deliver a measured amount of content knowledge, but rather a careful thinker who deeply considers the child, and instead offers responses to their play and interests. She speaks to the expectations of teachers, and how overly invested they can become with offering “things” to children, all in the name of supporting their learning. She suggests that we clear space for learning rather than try to fill it, which points to an authentic trust in young children as self-motivated learners. I loved her trademark, poetic phrasing when she said these offerings to children should have the “lightest touch” and teachers should have the “least attachment” to preconceived outcomes. She goes on to talk about what she calls “lively” learning, and that the emergence of new ideas and thinking comes from wrestling with conflicting ideas…that learning should be fluid, reciprocal and engaging. For a link to the video of her full interview, look here.

It is this idea of responsiveness to children, and curiosity about them, that makes me feel that it is a form of love…and I wonder:

Can we love someone if we aren’t truly curious about them?

How much do we really desire to know more about the children we are close to?

How often do we actually marvel together with the children in our lives?

As adults we often operate out of a belief that we know more than children rather than, perhaps more accurately, know differently than children. It is what makes it difficult to hold space for them, or slow down when they need more time to process something. Our “knowing” overrides theirs, and it turns into a battle of wills- which we are almost always certain to lose, not to mention be completely exhausted by. As Ann says, it isn’t “sustaining work.”

So what is the “food” we can thrive on when working with young children? What nourishes us as teachers, and in return nourishes the children we care for? It might sound overly sentimental but, it’s LOVE. We can’t show up and be present with children if we don’t love them unconditionally, and desire to know them deeper. We can’t be responsive to their needs if our love doesn’t fuel our actions. We can’t uphold the sheer energy it takes to be with young children all day without loving them. We cannot hear what they say if we do not listen from a place of love. It is love that enables children to feel validated and safe. It is love that illuminates our work with them.




An Open Invitation

By Kelsie Castro

“There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.”

~Pablo Picasso


The way that adults view children’s art differs greatly from how they would view that of another adult, someone who they respect as an artist. When they see the work of an artist they appreciate it, respect it, and value it in a way that unfortunately doesn’t always exist when looking at the work of children. Because of this, a walk through a museum looks much different than a walk through the classroom. Instead of being awed and amazed by the thought provoking creations on display, adults tend see something “cute” or “sweet” instead, devaluing children’s work without even realizing they are doing so. With most of children’s art, the thing adults really see is product and not everything that work actually represents.

Think about the times that you have noticed children’s art, maybe your own child’s or even someone else’s …. What did you see?

Did you see dots or new beginnings?  Colors or emotion?  Scribbles or a story?


Something we tend to forget when we look at children’s art is that there is so much more to it than what appears at a surface level. Within each child’s art is the moment where they were inspired, where they started imagining and inventing. There is experimentation and trial and error, the introduction of new materials or new techniques, and all those moments where the child must start again because their work doesn’t quite match their vision. What we don’t always notice is the skill, thought, and reflection that goes into these artists work.

 Each one of these things is part of the process, part of the feelings and ideas and risks that go into creating something new. It is in this process where the child is most active, where their connection to the materials is the strongest, and where parts of the child are open to anyone willing to take the time to really see. These are the things that are hardest to see when we look at children’s art, but also the parts that are the most important. This is where the spirit of creativity, that true artistic spirit, thrives.

The beauty of creativity is that it can take many different forms, especially with children. For a child, each time they put their hands in something, look at a material in a new way, take a risk, or connect on a deep emotional level with one of the many artistic languages, they are exercising their unique creativity. As they dance, paint, build, sing…. they unleash a part of themselves, their emotions and thoughts, into the world. With everything they do, children are showing us who they are, what they think, and how they feel. In every creative moment they experience, the child is an artist.


The work that you see each time you walk through a classroom or past a child deep in any process is a reflection of the experiences they’ve had, a window into their lives as an artist. It is a chance to appreciate not only the work that children are capable of doing, but also an opportunity to appreciate each child for the creative masterpiece that they are. Through their art and all that it encompasses, you will see the passion, curiosity, joy, and sometimes even frustration and uncertainty so many of them feel each time they pinch a piece of clay, stroke a canvas with their paintbrush, slide a bead along a wire, or push a needle through a small button hole. You will get to see what happens when children believe in, connect with, and appreciate the process of creating.

All that it takes to do this, to soak up all the incredible things children’s art is telling us, is to listen. It is in the moments when adults listen not just to children but to their work that the rest of their drawings, sculptures, or structures come to life. By tuning into these moments and opening our ears and minds, that is how we truly begin to see children as the artists they are.


Inspired by that thought, I wanted to share with each of you something that was asked of parents visiting our art auction this last year as a reminder to slow down and appreciate each child’s creative process. To them and now to you, I extend an open invitation to see children differently and to challenge current perspectives of who they are and what they can do. I invite each of you to…

Take a closer look at the children behind any creations that you see.

Appreciate the children whose hands have molded and shaped these works of art and the process that each of them went through as they poured their ideas and emotions out on to the various canvases.

Wonder alongside the children about what lead them to create and look at all the things that have inspired them.

Not just see the work they do, but to engage with it, think about it, and consider what it means for children everywhere.

See children for the thoughtful, creative, visionary spirits that they are.

Believe that children are capable of levels of creativity, imagination, and innovation that exceeds the bounds of what we as adults would even think to do.

Admire their brilliance and honor their passion.

We invite you, always, to see all children as artists.


Listen To Children…

by Sara Zacuto

“Trust children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”
~John Holt

Since becoming the parent educator here at Little Owl, my role in facilitating project work with the children has diminished. It’s something I truly miss. But a while back I began a project all on my own. It started with a simple desire to share meaningful quotes with our parents. I wanted to post them around the school as provocations for dialogue within our community, and also to provide accessible talking points that promote critical thinking about child development. I printed photos of the children and would include a relevant thought or idea from the wealth of great thinkers I know about and admire…people like Janet Lansbury, Bev Bos, Alfie Kohn, Heather Shumaker, Brené Brown, Fred Rogers and many, many more.

They looked like this:


After I’d made a few, it became evident that this was a powerful way to frame the learning that was going on everyday in our school. It became a simple way to document the children and show people the purposeful, productive and enriching play that was happening in every corner of our school. I wanted people to look at children running, digging, pouring water, or climbing, with new eyes and gain a deeper understanding of what was really happening for the children in every photo.

They weren’t “just playing.”

They were working on forming new relationships, taking physical and emotional risks, solving problems, testing boundaries, imagining, hypothesizing, figuring out how things worked, building, deconstructing, creating, moving their bodies in novel ways, engaging their senses, thinking, feeling, constructing concrete knowledge and a million, million more…

There are always going to be people who doubt that children are capable of learning without being “taught.” There are people who look for proof, or some sort of product to take home at the end of a day that ensures something was learned. I think this has to do with many varying factors…fear-based societal and cultural pressures, a deep and systemic flaw that promotes testing kids relentlessly (because knowledge MUST be measured or it doesn’t exist!), competitive parents who feel like they want their child to “succeed”, and a simple misunderstanding of what children really need…TRUST.



It is hard to step back and trust young children, because it requires relinquishing control. Letting go of our desired outcomes, of our expectations being met, and focusing on the child’s expectations instead, feels nearly impossible. This boils down to trusting children, and not just their capabilities. It’s easier to trust that a child is learning when they are active, motivated and busy, but trusting them even when they appear to be doing nothing? That’s hard. Trusting that they might be in a period of reflection, taking things in, thinking, or really needing to be accepted as an introvert, is something we are not socially conditioned to do. There is a wonderful Ted Talk about introverts here.

Trusting children became the message that was ringing loudest in all the quotes I was drawn to. The more quotes I gathered, the more it became clear that they needed to be compiled into a book, and feature a photo of every child in our school to carry the strong message to trust their learning. After a couple months, I had completed it. It is a collection of images and ideas that promote an image of children as capable, trustworthy, self-driven learners. It’s what I absolutely believe about them, and want to shout from the mountaintops.


As with every project I’ve worked on, I wanted to get input from the children…hear their ideas, and include their voices. I knew our annual art auction was coming up, so I decided that putting a quote on a canvas would be a perfect contribution. I grappled with which quote to choose. I thought it had to be simple, eloquent, and profound. I wanted it to encapsulate the very essence of children…a tall order. I figured I’d present a few to the kids and let them choose which one worked best. A few quotes stuck out to me, until (ding! and duh!)…TRUST CHILDREN. Even I forget sometimes…or need to challenge myself to trust even more.

What would they put on a canvas?

What do they have to say?

What is the idea they want to put across?

I came up with the right question to ask them:

“What do you want grown-ups to know about children?”

The conversation was actually quite brief. The very first idea came about when a child said “You should listen to kids, and do the stuff they want to do” and another chimed in “listen to them when they talk to you…”  So that became simply, “Listen to children.”

The next idea came just as quickly when I felt a tug on my shirt and bent down to hear the secret that was being whispered in my ear…“let them laugh and play.”

I don’t know if it was the whispering, or the idea, but shivers went down my back when I heard it.


It was perfect.

Here is a peek at our process of creating the canvas:


I brought the question to our afternoon gathering to hear more about what the children believed. And since there were so many more ideas and no more room on our big canvas, we decided to make another little one expanding on the topic about what grown-ups should “let kids” do. The kids, of course, had LOTS to say…


Listen up grown-ups!

This is what our children want us to know!

This is what they want for themselves.

They want to dance, jump, climb and skip!

They want to draw and play, kick soccer balls and make books!

To put on their own shoes and say poop!

Paint, sew, get messy, dig and hug!

They want to run free, and do nothing…to solve problems and smell roses!

They want to know they can do anything…they want to be heard.

And they want to be trusted.


Come Collecting!

By Rebecca Sadler

“With children, it is the joint moments of delight that build the social brain.”

~Mariah Moser

We are furthering our exploration with treasured materials and clay. I was inspired by my co-teacher Xochitl to take small groups of children throughout the environment, both inside and outside. We talked about what things we love to see and play with at our school.

As I shared the plan with the children, I realized there could be a possibility for relationship building while the children share about their favorite things. When children have something in common, chances are they are excited to share that connection with one another. Since so many children on the Yellow Side have been connecting lately, this opportunity made me choose my groups with consideration.

Skylar and Azélie have a strong connection and I wanted to keep them together. I decided to add just one more child to that group, Flynn. We talked about how we would first collect our materials then later we would get a chance to imprint them into the clay, like we have done in the classroom. This time we would form bowls with it and let the clay dry.


While we were going around the garden collecting things, we found, Azélie saw something and she was excited to share, “It’s a rock!”

Skylar and Flynn weren’t far behind to come and check it out. They gathered together to look at this precious discovery. Flynn shared with us about a rock he found and took home once. This simple exchange reminded Skylar about sea shells that she has brought home and, with that, the energy of the children connecting came alive.

Skylar and Azélie headed out of the garden and onto their next expedition. They were almost there when Azélie looked back and called out to Flynn…

“Come Collecting!”

It felt like the act of collecting had became a community event and no one was going to get left behind.


Watching this made me think about this project and the many things that children will discover and bring home. Our bowls are creating space for those collections. A space to treasure things and experience that moment of joy once more. I can’t wait to hear more of their stories as this unfolds.

Dear Sara…

““Trust children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we couldn’t be trusted.”

~John Holt

A Gripping Scene

This week I advise a concerned mom about how to react when her son suggests he wants to hurt himself.


Hi Sara,

I had a concerning event come up today an would like to look to you for guidance. My son has, over the last few weeks, told us that he wants to hurt himself. Some examples have been holding a stick and saying he wants to poke himself in the eye to hurt himself and there have a been a couple of other instances although I can’t remember the details. I do not know how to react in this situation and I have a feeling that I am reacting too much and he is experimenting with my reactions. He is quite risk averse so the fact that he is saying that he wants to hurt himself is very confusing to me. Today when we came home from school I asked him if he still had that feeling in him and he said yes, so I took out a big paper and suggested he draw his feeling out, after a while of scribbling really hard he said that helped. I am looking for any literature you can recommend, advice on how I should react or if I should take these threats seriously.

Thank you,
A concerned Mom



Hi concerned Mom,

Before I dive in I just want you to know that even though it’s deeply unsettling, this behavior is fairly typical for your son’s age…hopefully we can figure out what might be driving him to explore this mode of communication.

 From what you described, it sounds to me like he is looking for some kind of feedback, whether it be emotional or physical. What I mean is, he is most likely seeking something from you (maybe physical intervention, maybe some extra attention or validation?) Often times children will try out rather exaggerated methods to get a need met. Without really getting to observe these interactions though, it would be difficult for me to try and discern what his need could be.

It’s possible that this is actually lighthearted testing, and he is gauging your level of concern for him. Or maybe he is actually curious about what it would feel like to fully “be in charge” of his body- taking it as far as harming himself. It could be linked to an increasing desire to have more control in general, possibly indicating that he is feeling powerless about something else. At 5, kids tend to want to explore the depth of what they can control (which isn’t a whole lot) and that inevitably leads to what they do have power over…their bodies, and often times, our reactions.

 But, I’m curious, does he actually ever go through with it? That is where a deep concern would be appropriate. As far as I can tell, he is experimenting here.

 So, how should you react?

This is where it gets tricky. Because he is 5, and VERY bright, I would underreact as much as possible. It seems very unlikely to me that he would follow through with actually hurting himself because, well…it hurts! You could even take the route of responding with nonchalance, even if it’s feigned at first. So maybe something like:

 Him: I’m going to poke my eye with this stick!

 You: Hmm, ouch…wouldn’t that hurt?

I think asking this question might show him that you trust him enough not to “rescue” him from the scenario, and maybe his need is to feel trusted…even when he says alarming things.

 I’m not too sure how he would respond to this question…if his answer would be “no” (like he feels invincible), or “yes” (which might mean he wants you to “talk him off the ledge”, showing that you care)…either way he would then be engaged in a conversation about it, which might allow for him to work out all the logic of why it’s not a good idea to hurt his body…which I’m sure he already knows. He most certainly can pick up on the fact that you are feeling uneasy about what he is doing, and he might be working that out and trying to reconcile with your discomfort by continuing to do it.

Mostly I think what he needs is a little trust, and time before this phase passes. I think the less the alarm bells go off about it, the more likely it is to fade out.

 I hope this helps.



P.S. One more thought…

I wonder, too, if part of what is going on is a type of morbid curiosity about bodies, or blood etc. I know at this age that particular kind of inquisitiveness comes about, where they want to cut open worms and smash ants etc. Maybe this is informing some of the behavior. Does he have ample opportunities to talk and read about the functions of the body? Or look at pictures of all the inner workings? Just a thought.

Hit the Wall! Mud Ball!

by Eric Eyman

“Play keeps us vital and alive. It gives us an enthusiasm for life that is irreplaceable. Without it, life just doesn’t taste good”

-Lucia Capocchione

Recently, while out in the backyard with the children, Wesley had an idea to make wet balls of sand and throw them at the climbing wall. Giving him a chance to explore this idea, I watched as he threw the first ball. Specks of sand trailed off as it flew through the air and stuck to the wall, still in the round form as Wesley had shaped it.


Seeing this moment from Wesley’s perspective, I was fascinated by his discovery and exclaimed, “Look how it stuck to the wall!” As a teacher however, my mind immediately began swirling with thoughts about what limits needed to be set. I wanted Wesley to be able to continue playing, but I also wanted to make sure it was safe. I took into consideration that there weren’t many children around in the sand box, and that as long as he wasn’t throwing them over the wall where other children around could get hit, it was A-okay! I gave Wesley that information and trusted him to follow through.

He continued making sand ball after sand ball, hurling them at different parts of the wall, all while being mindful of the limits we had discussed. Soon, Emma and Vanessa joined in on the fun! I gave the same reminders to the two of them that I had given to Wesley. They carefully crafted their balls of sand and took fire at the wall, splattering wet sand everywhere.

I asked the group if they could think of a name for this game. Without hesitation, Wesley shouted, “Mud ball!” Vanessa exclaimed, “Hit the wall!” Then Emma chimed in, “I know. How about Hit the Wall, Mud Ball?” Wesley and Vanessa happily agreed. While throwing more balls of sand, they chanted, “Hit the wall! Mud ball! Hit the wall!Mud ball!”

Later, as I reflected on this experience, I thought about the other preschool I intern at, where rigid rules are enforced. Wesley’s idea to throw sand balls would never fly there (no pun intended). I thought about how much the children at that preschool are limited, and how they are not encouraged to question the rules. I thought about how the children at Little Owl are challenged to think deeper about their play. The teachers and children engage in thoughtful discussions about their work and the classroom environment. They create plans together about how different materials are going to be used. In my thoughts, I realized how important it is for teachers to carefully consider the individual needs of each child, value their ideas, and work with them to explore endless possibilities.

Intimately Connecting with Paint Tools

by Michelle Ramirez

“In our work with these materials, we strive to honor the ways in which children live in their bodies, growing relationships with materials through their physical encounters with them.”

~Ann Pelo

“Would you like to come to the art studio to meet our new paint brushes?”

I asked this question as I buzzed about an already living, breathing life of a classroom during our second week back to school. Some children excitedly expressed, “Yes” or “I want to!”, while others looked with an expression as to say, “What do you mean?”

In my hand I held a container of new brushes that were as white as fresh snow. I wondered how they would hold up to also meeting the children for the first time. I reminded myself of the journey children had already been on the previous year when they were introduced to paint basics on the Yellow Side. These children who have been with us might greet these brushes like an old friend, while children joining us for the first time might be weary of having a ‘relationship’ with an inanimate object.

I wondered…

“How might children engage in scaffolding their own knowledge about paint and brushes to other children?”

Knowing the richness of stepping back as a ‘teacher’, I guided the children into our newly formed, shared art studio and continued to wonder what would shape our experience as I prepared for what I hoped would be a child-led exploration.


James took a few minutes to observe the details of the flat brush. He felt the soft bristles as he gently stroked it between his fingers.

After the children were settled with their chosen brushes, I made space for children’s voices and ideas by encouraging them to share their preexisting knowledge about paintbrushes with the group.

“You can’t push hard on them”-Alanah

“You use them for painting things”-Arjun

“You need to wash them with water”-Olive

I soon realized that the connections that the children had with these art tools revolved around limits and agreements about the use of the brushes. While all these tips the children provided about the brushes are crucial for the longevity of their life at our school, I found myself wondering again…“ What about the relationship they carry within their creative abilities with the brushes?” Why was the care of the brushes at the forefront of their responses rather than what they could do with them?

Another realization surfaced about how the delivery of information we as adults share from our own agendas shapes the impressions and connections that children have about their experiences.

Olive chose the thin round brush, while Alanah chose the medium-sized flat brush. “This brush is kinda pointy” -Olive



Investigating the impact of hand strength on the bristles…

What happens when you brush gently?

What happens when you use more pressure?


In the images above, children use the brushes on delicate areas of their bodies, before exploring with paint.


Arjun selected a flat brush. James became curious about the name of this brush. As I held it up, I showed him that the ferrule of the brush is flat, so the bristles held within are arranged in a flat line.

Screen-Shot-2013-05-13-at-2.54.26-PM   UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_31b5



Camden and I did a side-by-side comparison of different sized angled brushes. As we all looked at these brushes, we talked about how they are like a mountain; they have a high point and a low point much like the angles that can be seen on a mountainside.


Max felt the bristles of the flat brush on his chin and neck . 


Before using actual paint, we held imaginary jars of paint to practice “kissing” the bristles to the top of the paint. The purpose of this was to learn how they can have more control of where their paint goes by not having it drip down off of the ferrule or handle.

Children are encouraged to take ownership of the entire process of the painting experience. The process of setting up and cleaning up is modeled in a way that allows children to become comfortable and competent with setting up their own palettes and washing stations. Children are also encouraged to prepare the work space for the children that may enter the studio after them. 


Molly looks on as Aiko studies the creation she has made using a variety of thin and thick brushes.

Dry bristles on the fan brush versus wet bristles on the fan brush 

Farrah explores with the fan brush…

“It’s like a fan and it’s kind of spiky when I put water on it.”

When do you need to wash your brush?
When you are finished painting or want to change paint colors.

How to wash a paint brush

  • Set-up a jar filled halfway with water. Place a dry towel next to the jar.
  • Gently swish your brush around in the water without pushing the bristles down on the bottom of the jar. Swish at least three times.
  • Wipe the bristles on the lip of the jar.
  • Wipe the bristles on the towel. If the bristles are still dirty, you will probably see paint on the towel. You can do Steps 2, 3, and 4 again until your bristles wipe only water onto the towel.