Conferences as professional development

Presenters discuss with participants as they examine beetle larvae.Professional development—learning that will develop our professionalism, make us better teachers, and expand our content knowledge—aims to be delivered at just the right moment with an insight that changes you forever. Attending PD sessions builds up our store of such learning that we can draw on in challenging moments, those times when we wish a more knowledgeable colleague would step in and show us how. The reality in early childhood is that often PD is fit in during nap time, on half of teacher work days, in a burst at the beginning of the school year, or online alone after work. If we can’t have that knowledgeable mentor to work with on a weekly basis, consider attending a conference to broaden your professional development. Being immersed in thinking and talking about early childhood science education with others in the profession for an entire day, or several, is a transformative experience. Conferences provide those immersive experiences where keynote speakers inspire us to fully participate in our work—at the conference and back at school, and colleagues with more experience share their research, knowledge, and situation or lesson specific tips. The statistics about who attends such conferences helps the profession see who is interested and financially able to attend conferences. 

Cover of "Taking Science to School"The acronyms STEM and STEAM, and sometimes STREAMS, are part of many conference session titles. We should expect these sessions to connect the S-T-E-and-M in ways that represent what is known about how children learn, and how adults learn. In Taking Science to School:Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K–8  (National Research Council 2007 pgs 2–3) the authors describe what were new understandings of what children know and how they learn: 

  • Children entering school already have substantial knowledge of the natural world, much of which is implicit.
  • What children are capable of at a particular age is the result of a complex interplay among maturation, experience, and instruction. What is developmentally appropriate is not a simple function of age or grade, but rather is largely contingent on their prior opportunities to learn.
  • Students’ knowledge and experience play a critical role in their science learning, influencing all four strands of science understanding.
  • Race and ethnicity, language, culture, gender, and socioeconomic status are among the factors that influence the knowledge and experience children bring to the classroom.
  • Students learn science by actively engaging in the practices of science.
  • A range of instructional approaches is necessary as part of a full development of science proficiency.

Conference sessions reflect these understandings when they teach participants how to actively engage students in using the practices of science, rather than only being observers of demonstrations or the science work of others.

Play session presenters at the podium.

ECE session to deepen your appreciation of play.

At the 2017 national conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) a session on play was my first choice, “The play experience: Fulfilling the promise of play.”  

It was a way to remind myself why I was there: to learn to teach those experts at play (children). Through hands-on first solo, and then cooperative, play experiences using a variety of open-ended materials, followed by journaling and discussion, we talked about how play helped focus our minds, and opened opportunities for problem solving. We discussed ways to use play to stimulate creativity and imagination as part of teaching mathematics, science, literacy, art, and social studies, and helping children develop social emotional skills. When one 20 minute play period ended several participants remarked on how they didn’t want to stop exploring and using the materials to create through building, designing, trying first one way and then another. Others noted that children feel this way when they must transition to a different activity before they have finished playing.

Participants begin solo play.

Solo play exploring materials.

Presenters document the work for later discussion through photography.

Presenter Dr. Drew documenting the play for later discussion.

As we played I saw people exploring the concepts of shape, balance, symmetry, and trajectory; testing materials for the properties of flexibility, weight, and texture; and creating pleasing patterns.

Solo play may lead to making a structure.

Where does play lead you?

Play with pipe cleaners involved making shapes that balanced.

Extended play with pipe cleaners led to exploring balance.

Cooperative play followed the silent solo play leading to talking about our programs and playing games.

Cooperative play between participants.

Cooperative play.

After the session on play, there were so many STEM, science, and engineering sessions that I had to make difficult choices. I don’t regret attending the sessions I chose but I’d like to learn a little about those I had to pass on. Presenters can upload handouts to the Precis Abstract Management system but unfortunately few do, making it even more important to choose sessions wisely (for content in addition to how far they are from the last session). 

The discussions among educators who work in different areas of the early childhood education profession, and different areas of the country, help me clarify my thinking about teaching science. Presenting with other educators is another way to get the most out of a conference. In preparing for our session on supporting children’s use of the NGSS science and engineering practices, the experiences and views of colleagues Cindy Hoisington and Sandy Chilton informed my understanding. In the session participants sorted through a

Participants view photos and discuss the NGSS science and engineering practices in use.Participants view photos and discuss the NGSS science and engineering practices in use.group of photos of preK-grade 2 children at work and identified which science and engineering practices children were using in their investigations. In my NSTA Press book, Science Learning in the Early Years, I support using the NGSS because integrating the three dimensions—science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas—provides a learning environment that encourages children to ask questions, plan investigations, and record and discuss findings as they build understanding of science concepts.

I’m looking forward to the next conference I’ll be attending, the NSTA 2018 national conference, March 15-18, in Atlanta, GA. And later in the year, the NAEYC annual conference will be held in Washington, DC, close enough to drive! Post about calls for proposals for conferences near you on the NSTA Learning Center Early Childhood forum and the NAEYC forum, Hello.

And I’m feeling wistful about having to pass up several opportunities for effective conference learning including the Early Childhood Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (ECSTEM) Conference, February 2-3, 2018, in Anaheim, CA.

 Meanwhile I’m finding time each week to participate in the NSTA Learning Center conversations and NAEYC forums, and enjoying making time to talk with colleagues locally about the engineering design happening in their Kindergarten class, and the tools their preschool students use to shape cardboard. 


National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 

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2 Comments

  1. Deb Schein
    Posted December 18, 2017 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Hi Peggy, I just want to remind everyone that science, math, and play also support and nourish a child’s spiritual development. Together they offer joy and wonder and touch something deep within us. This helps all of us to feel connected, opens up our ability to feel wonder, awe, and joy, and leads to our being kind, caring, and epithetic. This is actually best defined as STREAMS. For those interested in more on spiritual development, please feel free to contact me.
    Deb Schein
    growingwonder.com

  2. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted December 18, 2017 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Good to make those connections, Deb. Thanks for your comment. As each of us define the way we integrate various domains, we add letters to the acronym and make sure to address each one.

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