Thursday, September 5, 2013

If I had three wishes for every preschooler.....

I recently wrapped up a few interviews with prospective families and somewhere in the middle of my 2 hour long spiel parents of older children always say, “Your program looks great but do you offer preschool?” I feel like it’s a trick question, if I say “yes” will they be waiting on pins and needles for that first number / letter worksheet? If I say “no” will they think the children are wandering around bored out of their tiny skulls losing I.Q. points by the day? My response is usually something along the lines of “Yes but it looks a whole lot more like kids just having fun than a preschool curriculum.” 

Then I hope they aren’t too disappointed when their child’s first art project is a massive glob of paint that gets tossed in the trash once it’s served it’s purpose of demonstrating color transformation of many shades of brown.

This year's first official art project made its way to the trash when we were finished. While there was no tangible evidence that any learning took place, by day's end we made some really great observations about the color brown.

I could have given the kids a squirt of brown paint and a cut out of a bear with the instructions to paint a brown bear for the letter B but then they would have missed out on some valuable opportunities.  For instance, brown bear cut outs don’t engage children for forty minutes as they practice the ability to focus on their work, cooperate with peers in a small space or refine their ability to manipulate small objects without frustration. Working on those globs of paint also opened up a wealth of descriptive dialogue and opportunities to hone their skills of observation in a way that was specifically meaningful to them. They shared at least fifteen different musings on the subject of "things that are brown" as they observed shade transformations in their own work and the work of peers. 

Defending children’s rights to play as a valid means of investigating the world and learning is an exhausting endeavor. For some families it’s very visible right from the get go and for others it’s a You’ll believe it when you see it kind of a thing, thankfully I am a part of people who value this method of teaching because many of them are teachers by trade.

I am SO thankful for them everyday, they are SO supportive and wonderful to work with.

I’m not a traditional girl pedaling a traditional program; I don’t believe your baby can or should read, I believe Baby Einstein is a load of crap and toddlers should not have unlimited access to ipads or other electronic gadgets. I also believe that our society’s obsession with pumping children full of facts gets in the way of fostering true creativity because true creativity is unpredictable, messy and a little bit quirky. 

After a few failed attempts at building an airplane with these tricky blocks we separated the blocks to make it easier to hunt down the correct pieces for the project. Then we hung the blueprints so we could match them up. After several attempts to follow the directions we decided to make our own simpler designs. 
Most of our preschools (and schools) are being pressured into churning out children who are “good listeners” making “good choices” instead of good question askers making lots of messy mistakes in the relentless pursuit of feeding their insatiable curiosity. 

I like children’s curiosities; I think children should be fed great big heaping servings of delicious information as often as the they desire. I also believe that only information that is relevant to the child’s interests and methods of learning have any value to them so we should be mindful in our teaching practices.  

Sadly our society has bought into the idea that memorizing all the basic symbols for reading and writing are the most important markers for time well spent in preschool and so that is where the curriculum goes. The problem is that preschool is actually meant to prepare the body and mind for school, not force children to hurry up and learn “school stuff” so they can get to school and learn more “school stuff.” 

After building a stage and designing outfits for a fashion show we googled "runway shows" for a behind the scenes look at the fashion industry.

If I were to have three magic wishes for every child under the age of five my first wish would be (drum roll please) ...... no more circle time! 

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting in circle time you would understand why children twitch uncontrollably and want to poke the daylights out of each other. It’s mind numbing and in my personal opinion circle time is the beginning of sit down and be quiet teaching practices that are so pervasive in our system. All that sitting and listening to someone else yammer on and on about something that is completely uninteresting seems like a huge waste of time. Not all children are ready for the same information at the same time in the same way. 

Some children are not great at sitting still and they need to move to process. Some children need to bounce from one task to the other taking in little bits of information before they are able to process the whole. Some children are great sitters and like to have a quiet space to work, others blabber on and on about completely unrelated topics then bust out with great ideas when you didn’t even think they were listening. Teaching children to resist their own true nature in favor of someone else’s idea of what “listening” looks like only leads them to believe that they are incapable of interpreting and fulfilling their own needs. 
We took our buckets, ropes and clamps on the road to build a pulley system for moving wood chips at our local park. Along the way we found these awesome flowers so we compared the size of the small yellow flowers with the gigantic Sunflowers and other naturey stuff.
My suggestion? Long walks and long talks about things that are relevant to the children.   If you must do circle time, do it during meal times and let the kids lead the discussion. They never fail to take the ball and run with it. I once had the most fascinating conversation about the inner workings of a legless woman’s intestines with a group of children under the age of five, you won’t find THAT topic in your pre-k teacher’s theme book! 

Don’t make everyone sit for discussions lasting more than five minutes. If what you have to say as a teacher is riveting they will hang on your every word, otherwise you are wasting their time. Back off, let them make a few discoveries in their play, watch them, learn what interests them - then form your lesson plan around that. You will be astounded at how engaged they can be!

Which brings me to my second wish.....dump thematic teaching and worksheets! 

Nothing sucks the life out of teaching and learning like a canned curriculum slopped over the children year after boring year. Lots of preschools are using the same stuff handed down from one teacher to the next because it’s what they’ve always done. You know the drill.... Apples in September, Pumpkins in October, Turkeys in November, on and on it goes. It’s SO predictable and SO boring. It’s not fun to teach and it’s probably not fun to learn especially when you consider how many children are attending the same program EVERY year until kindergarten. 


Don’t we owe our children more? Isn’t the purpose of education to encourage children  to follow their own interests, ask questions, develop ideas, imagine things that don’t exist and learn to self educate so they can contribute to society in a meaningful way?!? I’m sorry to say it folks but repeating the same old Apple, Pumpkin, Turkey routine year in and year out is not going to get us there. 
A pulley system built by a group of children who wanted to make "an elevator" for pet shops and pirates.

There are so many things to learn and early childhood is the time when we need to pile kindling on the flame of curiosity rather than suffocating it with lackluster, teacher-driven, outdated drivel. How about building a stage for a fashion show, researching how accordions are made or exploring simple mechanics by building a pulley system?

What is a fashion runway without dramatic lighting? These guys conjured up a catwalk from old planks, Christmas lights and sheer fabric. It was fabulous and a little terrifying to watch them teeter across it in plastic high heels but it was great fun!

My third and final wish...

Make all classrooms multi aged, give teachers a few years to work with the same group of kids and drop ratios to a rational number with parent volunteers.

O.K. I guess that last one was a three in one so it’s kind of cheating as far as wishes go but the point is in twenty years of working with little ones I can say that it all boils down to this simple equation: 

Child spends lots of time with a creative teacher who understands her as a person + child participates in a community of learners on a sliding scale of capabilities = child becomes compassionate, emotionally grounded, wildly creative person.
Learning about taking care of the environment and healthy eating by growing our own food and composting in the back yard.

Simple equation, tricky to put into practice but it can be done. I assure you we are living proof of that.

My favorite thing about the way our program is structured is that I get to keep my kids for several years and we are a small tight knit bunch. I get to learn what makes them tick so I can help them go from low man on the totem pole (the youngest among us) to the problem solving leaders of play (the oldest). Also there's a certain social responsibility built into the hierarchy of our little society. It’s expected that the children will be patient with less capable peers, that they will trust me to back them up so that they don’t need to get physical and that they will help each other out because that is what good friends do. It’s the sort of thing that gets better each year the kids are steeped in the energy of the group and it makes them better people.  

1 comment :

  1. I truly believe Carmen is more advanced in her learnings because of your unconventional preschool program. Being able to do what she likes to do, at her own pace, all while learning from older (and now younger peers), is a great experience for her. I do not look forward to the day when she becomes just another number in the class. I know there are good teachers out there in the system but they only can do so much with the constraints that are put on them.