In 2021, we will using our Staff Spotlights to learn more about individual staff, their inspirations, and their incredible resilience in adapting to Outdoor Learning in a pandemic.
Spotlight on Cindy Shillinger
Cindy is a teacher in the Purple Room.
What inspired you to be a teacher?
I've had wonderful mentors, teachers and caregivers all through my life. So I pretty much knew that I wanted to work with children from the time I was 10. And just every step along my path, it's been reconfirmed that this is the route. So it's just been a draw, I think I was just meant to be working with children.
Why did you choose to be a teacher at Playschool?
I think it kind of chose me. We chose each other. I was actually living down in DC and I had just recently gotten married and my husband and I decided to move back to Pennsylvania. And when we told the families in the school I was teaching at that I was moving to Kimberton, a parent came to me and said, "Oh, you have to check out Charlestown Playhouse." And so it just so happened that the house we moved into, our neighbor went to Charlestown Playhouse and she introduced me to Betty. During my first visit I thought, "This is like home." I was just meant to be there, and I just can't imagine my life without it.
What age group were you with before?
I've taught anywhere from two-year-olds through kindergarten.
How long have you been a teacher at Playschool?
I've been with Playschool since 1997.
What best prepared you for teaching at Playschool?
My mentors and different work and educational situations that I've been in have just really built upon my understanding of child development and my interest in play. And even now I'm still inspired by new people that I hear speaking at different workshops. There's more coming to fruition with play and brain development that it's just so inspiring.
Why is play-based education important to you?
I think the reason that it's so important to me is because it really is an extension of who the child is. You get to know the child by what they're interacting with and how they're interacting. It's their language. It's the way they express themselves. So it's just fascinating to me to observe children and see the development that's happening as they're interacting.
You said that play is a child’s language. Can you give an example of that?
I think a lot of children will play out some ideas that they're working on. A lot of the time, children will express any fears or emotions through play. And it's just interesting to see how they're processing big emotions, how they're processing the world around them. I just find it fascinating.
What are one or two things that prospective parents should know about the Purple Group or Playschool in general?
I think that the child is a whole person, and we have to see them as capable and confident. It's just one step along the way of becoming who we're truly meant to be. Children are just expressing themselves and growing, developing and even the adults in the classroom, the helpers and the teachers are constantly growing and developing in relationship with one another.
What are some of the developmental expectations of children in the Purple Room and what are some of the ways that you foster those expectations?
I think that the children are really seeking independence at this stage, but they're also seeking connection. They're starting to connect with peers. What we try to do in the classroom is give opportunities for the children to work through playing independently, playing alongside and playing with one another. We set up invitations that might challenge them to share or take turns with materials. We always help the children to notice that there are similarities and differences within the context of our families and what we enjoy playing with. I think just opening their eyes and setting up the idea that we're all similar and we're all different opens the world to everyone.
Can you share an anecdote or experience that sums up the Purple Group?
That's a really hard one. I think one of the parents shared with me this past year an anecdote. She was a helper in the classroom last year and as she explained the situation. I remembered it immediately. There was a child who wanted to be up on top of a climbing rock, and I wasn't going to lift the child up on top of the rock. We really feel that children need to invest in getting there on their own, so they're safe and able to get down. It was interesting having this parent reflect back on this experience and how it was frustrating for her to not see me want to help this child. But then she looked at it and said, "Oh, you are helping the child. You're allowing that child to do something and develop that sense of pride and accomplishment." And that's really what I want the parent helpers and the children to experience. You can try things, and they can be hard. You can have that sense of accomplishment. Sometimes you're going to fail, and hopefully you'll want to try again.
How has the Purple Group adapted to outdoor learning? What is something that you've changed and what has stayed the same?
For me, it's been a real big transition because having four walls and all of your supplies, you can whip something out at the drop of a hat if you see something happening. And so, it's changed my mindset in how to approach the interactions with the children because they're spread out. The biggest challenge has been finding ways to allow the children to get involved in activities without interfering but also guiding them back into a group setting. I guess one of the things we did is allow self-serve snack. The children will decide when they're hungry. In the classroom, we really had to clean things up and have a group time.
I think it's made the children feel freer in assessing what their needs are. There have been little social groups created, and children will say, "Oh, I see my friend is getting snack. I'm going to get my snack." So it's created even more independence among the children and a sense of pride.
What is the most important thing that you've learned from the switch to the outdoor program?
I have to give myself grace and let go of some of my preconceived notions on what has to get done. It's a hard one. I'm still working on that one.
What changes have you witnessed in the children?
There's an ability among the individual children to be able to self-regulate. They're not looking to be entertained as much, so they're engaging more deeply in what they're playing. If a child needs to play something by using their whole body, they can do that. They don't have to wait for me to bring out a climbing structure into the classroom. They can just delve into what their need is at the time. So I think that's the biggest thing, being able to regulate themselves and get involved in play. It is challenging for other children who like to be read to. When it's a cold day, it certainly is hard to sit there and try and turn a page. But for the most part, being able to be outdoors and get involved in the activity just allows the children to be more of themselves.
What have you learned from the experience of teaching in the pandemic?
It's the same, but it's different. I still have the same passion for the children to play, but there's an awareness in the back of your mind about keeping everyone safe, keeping their germs to themselves and making sure everything is kept clean. Masks are up, and they're changed when they get soggy. There's just an extra element of being with the children and working with them.
How have you seen your students respond to the pandemic? How are they handling the social distancing, the masks and the cleaning?
Well, I have to say in the beginning I was very reticent with the mask. I felt that we were asking a lot of the children. I'm finding that their resiliency and their willingness to be compliant in taking care of themselves and each other by wearing the mask has been astounding. I really think it also reflects back on the families. If we didn't have the support of the families helping the children understand the reason for wearing the masks so we can have this playtime together, it wouldn't have happened. Now, I wasn't going to bark on the children and try to force them to wear mask at every moment. That had to come from everyone pulling together and everyone believing that we could make this work and make a safe space for the children to be together.
What is your favorite children's book? And is there anything that you're reading now or would recommend?
There are way too many great children books out there! One of my favorites that I enjoy doing with the children is called Pierre the Penguin. It's a true story about this penguin who lost its feathers. It was helped by putting a wet suit on that they created for the penguin. I just love reading that book with the children because it's a non-fiction and you can see how people can interact and help animals. I just like penguins. I find them so totally interesting and fun to watch, so that's an enjoyable book for me to share with the children.
I just read for pure entertainment, The Pull of the Stars. My sister recommended that. It's about the pandemic 100 years ago. That was a tear-jerker. One of my favorite reads from this past summer was Free to Learn by Peter Gray, which talks about the importance of play with children. And so, that's just been a new passion of mine to really explore the depth and breadth of play and how important it is to us as a human species.
What are your favorite blogs, websites, books, or other resources for parents or teachers?
The ones I've been spending way too much time on lately on the computer have been Teacher Tom and Lisa Murphy who is known as the Ooey Gooey Lady. I wish as a parent, I'd had Janet Lansbury, she's just phenomenal with her approach to how you parent, especially your newborns and toddlers. I wish I had that insight years ago when I was raising my own children.
What is one thing that has helped you get through the last year?
I do a little bit of Facebook Marketplace shopping. I like to find a bargain. I've been doing lots of different readings and trainings just because it invigorates me and gets me out of my own mindset. I've been trying to do a sit spot — just taking time to just sit outside and notice things going on outside. I haven't been as great at that lately since the weather isn't conducive to it. But I’ve been trying to take care of me and be kind to myself.
What is your favorite food and favorite animal?
My favorite animal might be that penguin, but I don't want to exclude my pets though. I have a cat and a rabbit.
As for favorite foods, I love fruit. Cherries are my absolute favorite, but give me any fruit and I'm happy.
Is there anything else that we should know about you?
I'm getting close to becoming an empty nester. I have three seniors. My senior daughter is in college. She's graduating and she has a job lined up already and my twins are seniors in high school, so they'll be going off to college. It was a big adjustment with my first one leaving home for college, so I don't know what it's going to be like with two more. But it's a new phase of life that I'm looking forward to and also dreading at the same time.
Is there something that you've learned about teaching or education or kids from another teacher or staff person or former staff that you'd like to share?
I've learned so much along the way, but Miss Jean has been so integral to grounding my thoughts and feelings on really seeing the child. She would always bring it up at any staff meeting. Let's focus back in on the child and not see any limitations within the child but look at the child as a full human being who is valuable. Just see the child. Really recognize them and accept them for who they are. So she was a constant in reminding me of how important it is just keep reflecting back on that in your view of the child.
Any advice for parents if they're trying to do that? How do you see the whole child?
Really taking the time to observe and delight in what they're doing, even if a child is tantrumming, you step back. They have big emotions, they're trying to express themselves. So, it's just a way to kind of flip your view of it, shed a new light on what you're seeing and say, "Okay, they're communicating with me now. Let's figure out how to help them communicate in another way." I think we're always working on it. I don't think it's ever perfected. I think we're always working on these relationships and learning from them.
Teachers inspire students in many ways. If your students take one thing away from their time with you, what do you hope it would be and why?
When I first came to Playschool and heard Betty's philosophy that she would read to the open house group, it really struck me because what she said is, "For the children, our hopes many, but we want them to feel good about themselves." And that's probably the most important thing, because if they can feel love for themselves, then they can share love with one another. So, that always has touched me. And I think it's really important that the child feels that sense of love and caring from the adults.