Teaching Kindergarten Conference Focuses on “Thinking, Exploring & Rebuilding Together”

On March 3 and 4, teachers, administrators, higher education faculty, and more gathered online for Bank Street Graduate School of Education’s Teaching Kindergarten Conference: Where Did the Garden Go?, hosted by Continuing Professional Studies. This year, educators from 22 states, as well as the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and Romania, attended this annual conference, which celebrates the important and unique role of kindergarten in the lives of young children and provides learning opportunities for educators to enrich their early childhood teaching practice.

The theme of the conference, “Thinking, Exploring & Rebuilding Together,” explored three main topics: thinking together about how children learn; exploring how to create a rich curriculum that reflects interests of children, meets academic expectations, and plants the seeds of social justice; and rebuilding teaching practices with inspiring tools and resources.

“The last few years have been particularly hard on our early childhood educators, but during this weekend, we reminded them of the value of their persistence,” said Joy Lundeen Ellebbane, Director, Continuing Professional Studies and coordinator of the Teaching Kindergarten Conference. “Together, we were encouraged by our presenters and workshop facilitators and were so inspired by the commitment and expertise of all of the participants.”

The conference, which was founded in 2017 by early education experts Betsy Grob, GSE ’72 and ’99, and Fretta Reitzes, GSE ’69, began its first day of programming with a keynote presentation titled “The Art and Craft of Teaching Kindergarten: ‘Neuro-Sculpturing’ with Play” by Catherine Steiner-Adair, Clinical Psychologist and Research Associate at Harvard Medical School. 

In her presentation, Steiner-Adair, who is the author of three books, including The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, addressed the importance of the teacher as a “neuro-sculptor” of brain development in the first five years of life. 

“I think teachers care deeply about social justice. I think we see ourselves as shapers not only of these little sculptors, but really shapers of future leaders, and your kindergarteners are going to inherit a very complicated and very fragile world right now where academic skills will be outsourced by artificial intelligence. The most essential tools they need from you are the tools of their humanity—empathy, communication, the abilities to listen, to take care of each other, to play well with others. When you allow your children to play, craft and direct their play, and help them process their play, you really are helping the future generations for all of us,” said Steiner-Adair.

Teaching Kindergarten Conference 2023After the keynote, Emily Meisner, GSE ’10, Director of the NDI Collaborative for Teaching & Learning, led a movement activity titled “Sparking Joy: Dance & Music in the Kindergarten Classroom.” Participants were actively engaged, laughed and danced together, and learned strategies for engaging children through movement in their classrooms.

The second day kicked off with a presentation celebrating 2023 conference honoree Deborah Meier, a highly acclaimed leader of school reform and the small schools movement in American education. Meier was honored for her visionary work in support of project-based learning, democratic values, and building strong communities.

In the day’s keynote address, “Centering Freedom Through Play: Free to Develop, Free to Learn, Free to Teach,” Denisha Jones, Executive Director of Defending the Early Years, spoke about her research and equity work with The Global Education Reform movement.

Jones spoke about what research on the limitations of equity shows and what it takes for all early childhood learners to have the freedom to develop.

“If children are fortunate to begin with a hands-on, engaging early childhood experience that nurtures exploration and discovery, then they begin education with the practice of freedom. Research also shows that children with adverse childhood experiences are more likely to have a lot of negative outcomes. But what’s really exciting about the research is that a lot of that can be buffered with protective factors, including adult counselors who help the children use play to build resilience. So, children who are experiencing challenging childhoods through no fault of their own—they live in poverty, their family is unable to sufficiently provide for their needs, despite working and other issues, there’s no family safety net—they need more play than other children, as a protective factor that builds resilience and liberates them to overcome those childhood experiences,” Jones said.

Attendees also joined a “Lunch & Learn” with Bank Street leadership program faculty member Nicole Limperopulos on “Make-Believe Gun Play in a World of Gun Violence” and an “Author’s Corner” with Matt de la Peña, #1 New York Times Bestselling and Newbery Medal-winning author on “Inventing Stories & Connecting with Young Children: An Author’s Perspective.”

Breakout workshops provided attendees with practical learning experiences on many topics, including “Strengthening Hearts, Minds & Imagination Through Live Storytelling,” “Adding Mindfulness to Your Classroom,” “Turning Favorite Books into Class Plays,” “Growing an Anti-Racist Classroom Library,” and “Transforming Classroom Culture through Intentional Words,” among others.

To learn more about the conference and view details on this year’s keynote presentations and workshops, visit the Teaching Kindergarten Conference webpage