Data-Driven Family Engagement Tools for Head Start and State Preschools

Learning Genie is an app for ECE educators and family service workers for Distant Learning and Family Engagement including tracking in-kind. During the COVID-19 crisis, Learning Genie offers free tools till the end of 2020 under a grant (or in-kind) to support all ECE agencies for Distance Learning and track school readiness outcomes.


Learning Genie also provides a useful application for portfolio-building. The portfolio tracking and tagging systems could be readily applied to DRDP 2015, Florida VPK, Head Start (HS), Early Head Start (EHS), Montessori, and other state or private-backed assessment tools.

"Mama Circle" A Playful Journey Through The Curriculum Planning Process

Almost every week, there is a news article about the importance of play in early childhood education. In this flurry of new research, scientists have found some common characteristics of play that lead to development and learning. Most significantly, when children actively engage in imaginative and multi-sensory play, dopamine is released into the brain. Dopamine is associated with pleasure through creative and imaginary play. In addition, it enhances memory, attention, mental shifting, creativity, and motivation (Zosh et al., 2017).

As a transitional kindergarten teacher and California Preschool Instructional Network (CPIN) trainer, I passionately share the impact that The Powerful Role of Play in Early Childhood Education (CDE, 2021) document has had on my teaching. The play document is inspiring and challenging because it requires me to reconsider the role of the teacher in a play-based program. A balanced play-based program provides opportunities for child self-determined, adult-child collaborative, and adult-planned and directed play. The teacher plays many roles in the classroom, including the leader, collaborator, and observer. The role of the teacher is determined by the type of play and the child’s needs. Teachers attempt to seamlessly consider their role in the classroom to meet each child’s individual needs.

This blog will begin with a look at the teacher’s role as the observer. This role requires the teacher-observer to document what they observe, reflect upon the observation, and determine the next steps. When using observations to design lessons, a straightforward process is essential. For this reason, I turn to the curriculum planning process.

The Integrated Nature of Learning (CDE, 2016) suggests using the curriculum planning process to develop a plan of action to meet the unique needs of each child. The curriculum planning process is a dynamic system that includes observation, documentation, reflection, and intentional planning.

My curriculum planning began with consulting The California Preschool Learning Foundation (CDE, 2008) to consider what was essential to observe. I started observing and documenting students in the fall of 2022 with Learning Genie as students’ engaged in play. Below is an example of my observation notes from September 15, 2022.

“Fred made the word foo. He showed it to me, and I said that if he found the letter D, he could make the word food. Fred found the letter D. We made the word food. He continued his exploration with letters and tried to discover new words he could make. He kept putting letters together to make silly words, and we laughed together. Nancy joined in. She kept putting BBJ in different orders to hear me say how to say the nonsense word. We laughed a lot! Nancy wanted the letter D. I showed her where to find the alphabet and how to sing to find the letter D. Ram noticed what was going on and joined in. He brought me the letters in his name. Ram then brought me the numbers one through four. I asked him if he could put the numbers in order, and he could. Jose came over and said, “My Project.” He made a rectangular structure for a race car out of Magna-tiles. He observed as other children played with letters.”

These observations gave me insight into the development of students in my classroom. All students observed were interested in letters and words but were at different developmental levels. The big step in my development was to reflect on how these observations could play a more significant role in planning instruction. I had to step out of my comfort zone to consider a different paradigm of curriculum design.

I have worked diligently to design a curriculum aligned with The California Preschool Learning Foundation and The California Preschool Curriculum Framework (CDE, 2010). I know through my studies that children learn best in the context of social play and by providing multi-sensory experiences. However, a curriculum reflective of observations and documentation would challenge me to go deeper as a professional. I decided to consider this paradigm shift when reflecting on my student, Jose.

Jose arrived in our transitional kindergarten classroom with limited experience with the English language. The bilingual classroom assistant engaged with Jose in Spanish. I observed Jose’s charisma, outgoing personality, and excellent verbal skills in Spanish. On the other hand, I also observed that he was growing frustrated, his play was becoming more isolated, and he was beginning to experience more conflicts with his peers. Below are some anecdotal notes:

“Jose can speak in multiple sentences on the topic and uses descriptive language in Spanish. Jose is working on distinguishing between Spanish and English regarding numbers. He counted four legs on a bear accurately in Spanish. When asked to repeat, he code-switched random numbers.” (September 15, 2022)

“Jose and Juan played Spanish bingo with brown bear characters with Mrs. Garcia. Juan uses many gestures to express himself. His expression showed that he understood the rules and appropriate social-emotional learning rules. Jose required reminders several times to keep the dice close when he rolled them. Each time, Mrs. Garcia would redirect him positively in Spanish.” (September 22, 2022)

“Juan wanted to make a train by himself. Jose wanted to help, and Juan was upset that Jose would not listen to his request to work independently. I helped Juan practice saying “By myself” with words and gestures. Jose reluctantly conceded and made a train track beside Juan.” (October 19, 2022)

The California Preschool Curriculum Framework state that reflecting and planning lessons based on observations is vital after an educator observes and documents a child’s play and interactions. Reflection of these observations initiated a hypothesis that Jose’s lack of experience with the English language may have prevented him from expressing himself to his peers effectively.

Observational notes provide insight into how Jose might integrate fundamental foundational skills when playing independently and information about a child’s learning style, temperament, and assets. The Preschool Learning Foundation and The Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP) are key resources for using observational data to determine a child’s skills and knowledge level along a developmental continuum (CDE, 2013-2019).

For example, according to the DRDP, Jose “Takes and plays with materials of interest, even when another child is using them.” The next step in development would be to “Show awareness that other children might want to use materials by taking action to control the materials” (CDE, 2013-2019, p.7). Based on my observations, I decided to design a lesson to meet Jose’s needs through music.

Music has always been an essential strategy in my transitional kindergarten instruction. The positive outcomes of engaging children in multi-sensory experiences have inspired me to build an extensive library of children’s music that supports daily routines and learning through music. Secondly, music is innately inclusive and can be modified to be accessible for all developmental levels. In addition, music is a supported strategy across all nine learning domains in The California Preschool Learning Foundation and The California Preschool Curriculum Framework. This is especially true in the social studies, physical development, and social-emotional learning domains.

These observations gave me insight into the development of students in my classroom. All students observed were interested in letters and words but were at different developmental levels. The big step in my development was to reflect on how these observations could play a more significant role in planning instruction. I had to step out of my comfort zone to consider a different paradigm of curriculum design.

I began planning by selecting Dr. Jean’s song “Shape Song” to support our investigation of color and shape. Before learning and singing the song, I created shape puppets to represent each shape character in the music. Over several days, I held up each felt-shape puppet on a craft stick with googly eyes one at a time.

We discussed their attributes, similarities, and differences. Children took turns holding each puppet as we counted their angles and sides. Children learned the color words in Spanish and English, and the classroom assistant sat with Jose to translate. Other children expressed excitement about learning Spanish too. I invited children to lead others through the song by holding up felt-shaped characters as they sang about the shape in the music. Children excitedly anticipated their turn to be the next leader.

After a few weeks of practicing the “Shape Song,” we had great excitement at snack time when Jose exclaimed the name of one of the felt-shaped characters from the song. “Mama Circle, Mama Circle,” he shouted as he thrust a circle-shaped cookie two inches from my face.

“Yes, Jose, your cookie is shaped like a circle!” I responded.

Soon I was surrounded by children showing me their discoveries in their lunch boxes. “Papa Square, Cousin Rectangle, Baby Triangle,” they all exclaimed. Children excitedly searched through their snacks to find more shapes. I discovered that snack time would be an excellent opportunity to record anecdotal notes because they applied the geometrical knowledge acquired through puppets and music. Jose beamed with delight as the leader of discovering shapes around us.

The “Mama Circle” story is meaningful to me as an educator. It required me to consider my documentation, reflect on Jose’s temperament and learning style and focus on strategies to build his confidence, sense of inclusion, and language development. After I provided intentional instruction, he applied his learning and had others follow. Teacher-initiated play aims to engage, model, and provide a foundation so children can apply concepts naturally in child-directed play.

In my teacher role as a leader, I work to create and facilitate experiences that motivate Jose to engage in social and fantasy play. Pretend play enabled him to consider concrete symbols and view them more abstractly. Music is an ideal strategy to engage and motivate Jose to participate with peers meaningfully to build his sense of self. Jose could take what he learned about Mama Circle from holding a puppet and singing a song about Mama Circle and then use that experience to find shapes in his world.

The philosophy is consistent with Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory (Mcleod, 2023). Vygotsky’s Theory reinforces that learning is a collaborative process and meaning is achieved through positive interaction and dialogue (Mcleod, 2023). My journey reinforced that growth and learning are most achievable through play. My schedule must also provide time for all forms of play; this includes teacher-facilitated, teacher-child collaborative, and child-initiated play.

Reflection is a critical component of the curriculum planning process, and I discovered many positive outcomes that will guide my teaching in the future. First, I will continue pushing myself out of my comfort zone by considering different curriculum planning processes. The ability to be open to new paradigms is essential if we want to create learning environments and curricula to meet the needs of all children.

I must be patient and realistic. Learning takes time and reflection. Moving through the process with every student in my class will take practice. Therefore, I will begin the process with students I know require scaffolding, modification, and alternative support to create better equity in my classroom.

Lastly, early childhood educators are influential in our ability to advocate for a more equitable society by engaging in meaningful practices for all children in our classrooms. In the newly published CDE document, Creating Equitable Early Learning Environments for Young Boys of Color, we learn that culturally responsive teachers “create early learning environments that engage and honor children’s diverse learning preferences (CDE, 2023, p. 191).

After engaging in the curriculum learning process, I had many new questions. “What did I learn about children that I had not observed before this process? How can I adjust my daily schedule to allow for more observations through play? When observing, am I being culturally responsive?” The next step in my journey will be to engage colleagues and the families of children to find answers to these questions and further develop as a culturally responsive teacher.


1. California Department of Education Sacramento (2021). The Powerful Role of Play in Early Education. California Department of Education.

2. California Department of Education, Sacramento (2016). The Integrated Nature of Learning. California Department of Education.

3. California Department of Education, Sacramento (2008) California Preschool Learning Foundations. California Department of Education.

4. California Department of Education, Sacramento (2010) California Preschool Curriculum Frameworks. California Department of Education.

5. California Department of Education, Sacramento (2013-2019), Desired Results Developmental Profile (2015), California Department of Education.

6. California Department of Education, Sacramento (2023), Creating Equitable Early Learning Environments for Young Boys of Color, California Department of Education.

7. Feldman, Jean ( 2020) The Shape Song. Sing to Learn.

8. Learning Genie. Retrieved May 14, 2023, from

9. Mcleod, S., (2023). Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory Of Cognitive Development. Simply Psychology, (May).

10. Zosh, J. M., Hopkins, E. J., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Neale, D., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Solis, S. L., & Whitebread, D. (2017). Learning through play: a review of the evidence (white paper). The LEGO Foundation, DK.

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