Home News Local news Multi-Island Childhood Conference Kicks Off with Playtime on St. Croix

Multi-Island Childhood Conference Kicks Off with Playtime on St. Croix


March 3, 2008 — Childcare providers, social workers, Head Start instructors and parents jumped up and down, waved their hands and sang "toe, leg, knee" instead of "do re mi" Monday morning at the Best Beginnings Tenth Annual Early Childhood Conference.
Jim Gill, musician and children's author, played banjo and harmonica, leading everyone in singalongs as keynote speaker at the conference, held in the Cafetorium on the University of the Virgin Islands' St. Croix campus.
The fun and games wasn't all fun and games, though. Gill is a child-development specialist with a gradual degree from the Erikson Institute of Chicago. He preaches the value of interactive and guided play as a powerful teaching tool. Gill cut his teeth with 20 years directing weekly programs in music play for families with children with special needs in Chicago. His show and methods are aimed at a preschool audience.
"What not only develops their minds but physically makes their brains bigger? " Gill asked the standing-room-only crowd. "Interaction. Some teachers hear this and ask, 'Where can we buy some of these interactions?'"
Gill imitated the way a parent plays with an infant, grabbing toes, saying, "I've got your toes; I've got your leg; I've got your nose."
"That kind of simple play — the scientists say that is the best thing we can do for them," he said.
Also a part of interactive learning are rhyming songs and songs where the children touch or point to parts of themselves. Games can help organize and manage a class, too.
"All teachers know when a group of children all become quiet, you leave it like that," he said.
"I would only sing songs that get them up and shaking around if they are already doing that."
Teachers have different mechanisms for getting control of a class. Some flick a light on and off, for instance, he said.
"I'm going to sing some sort of song … like 'Toe, Leg, Knee,' and at the end, there is a quiet," he said. "Not because you made them be quiet — a different sort of quiet. They quiet down and are waiting to find out, 'What do we do next?'" Clapping and flicking lights, you are saying, 'Be quiet because I say so,' but this way they quieted themselves down, which is exactly what you want: to help them learn to calm themselves down."
Group games can teach self-control and other virtues in other ways, too, Gill said. For instance a game where you sing a verse, then have to wait for the leader to sing numbers up to a certain count before jumping up and down.
"Teachers will see this and say, 'Look, they love to jump up,'" he said. "But they are missing the point. It is a joy to work with children when they look at you and follow along. Why do they do it? Imitation may be the word for the behavior, but … they do it because they love you."
In addition to delivering the keynote address, Gill performed a show Monday at the Central High School gymnasium on St. Croix and will perform from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Charlotte Amalie High School.
The conference is a four-day affair: Monday and Tuesday on St. Croix and Thursday and Friday on St. Thomas. Because childcare never takes a holiday, the providers naturally cannot all come on the same day. The program is the same each of the four days so everyone can experience it.
Ellie Hirsh, an educational consultant, and Kim Gomez, assistant commissioner of Human Services, have been involved with the annual early-childhood conference since its inception.
"We all wanted to make an impact on early childcare," Hirsh said. "Many of us would go to conferences n the States, but it is difficult. We felt it was time we should have our own first class conference right here. … The goal is to raise awareness of the importance of early childhood in development and to provide caregivers new skills and tools for working with children and families."
Gill's performance was a hit with the crowd.
"It's going to raise the bar for our keynote speaker," Gomez said. "People lose sight of the fact that children learn through play. It is important for brain development. If there is one thing everyone should walk away from this with, it is play."
After Gill's opening address, the childcare providers and early-education professionals split up into conference "breakout sessions" — hour-long interactive lectures on all manner of childcare topics, including yoga and meditation for young children; treating disruptive behaviors in young children; conflict resolution for adults; teaching Spanish through music; puppetry; the importance of fathers; and teaching science to pre-schoolers. If the rooms get too crowded, videos on a wide range of related topics get played throughout the conference.
"Children are natural scientists," said Linda James, a science teacher at the St. Croix Seventh Day Adventist School, during her lecture on teaching science to preschoolers. "You can hold up a turtle and ask the children what they know: What is the animal? Where does it live? Is it a type that swims? What do you call an animal that lives part of the time in the water and part on land?"
That last word may be too advanced for preschool, she said. But keep the concepts simple and the words short and familiar, and everything up to that point gives the children a grounding in basic concepts on which to build once they are in elementary school and beyond, she said.
Conference sponsors are UVI, the Human Services Department, Education Department, Health Department, Lutheran Social Services and the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands.
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