I have been a teacher for most of the past twenty-five years, stopping briefly for the births of my sons. When they were both old enough to attend preschool, I went along with them and taught at their preschools.
For several years, I was an instructor for VMFA and travelled to dozens of preschools in the metro Richmond area. I feel very strongly that a positive preschool experience is something that every child deserves.
In his last State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to expand access to high-quality preschool to every child in America. While I completely agree with the goal to offer every child an opportunity to learn and grow in a nurturing environment, I worry that there will be an academic push when or if the four-year-olds are in an elementary school setting. Our kindergarten classrooms already resemble the first and second grade classrooms of the previous decade.
The policy makers haven’t asked me, but if they did, I would tell them that a great preschool gives children a chance to be children, to learn through play, to make friends, and to always feel loved. Above all else, a successful preschool environment should let small children…
1. PLAY TO LEARN
If I had to choose one activity or outlet that is a must-have in a preschool classroom, it would be dramatic play.
The traditional kitchen with dress-up clothes is sufficient and will stimulate dialogue and social skills, but changing the props and themes will exponentially encourage growth and development in this area. It is an area that can incorporate all other subject areas and learning opportunities based on its set-up. Dramatic play is planned in our classroom and changes with the themes. When we discuss nutrition, the area becomes a supermarket with cash registers, scales, shopping bags and plastic food items – math, science, and social studies disguised as fun! We celebrate Chinese New Year with fancy plates and bowls, menus from a Chinese restaurant, and dress-up clothes. The children will often let us know when they are finished with the materials by choosing other areas in the room. On occasion, we burn out on the play before the kids (for example, performing arts week includes microphones and instruments). Dramatic play is an opportunity to learn vital social skills such as taking turns and respecting another person’s ideas. It also affords the children a chance to practice using new vocabulary from our circle-time discussions because the area is related to our weekly theme. Children work out lots of issues in dramatic play.
2. MAKE FRIENDS AND PLAY OUTSIDE
Adults may be interested in the inside of the preschool, but let me assure you, children are interested in the outside.
Time on the playground is very precious to a child. They want to go outside and play with their friends. Please don’t think that preschool learning only happens indoors; please don’t think that children aren’t learning and growing and making friends on the playground. So many amazing things happen on the playground! Yes, they are running and jumping and climbing and developing those important gross motor skills, but they are also mastering engineering skills when they build with pipes and logs in the sand. They are estimating measurements when they bake mud pies in the kitchen area. They explore the outside and become curious about how things grow and are harvested (we have a garden at our preschool). They learn a huge lesson in perseverance when initially they fail to go all the way across the monkey bars but with practice one day reach the other side. What better way for them to learn that if you work hard, you can succeed. I would suggest that the outside learning opportunities are just as important as the inside.
3. FEEL LOVED WHILE THEY PLAY
For a child to feel loved at preschool, their decisions need to be respected. Giving children a choice is the clearest path to a successful journey and a loving environment. And with this broad sweeping Statement, I’m not suggesting that children are in charge and can follow any path they desire. I mean that there should be a daily routine that offers consistency, but within that day, the child should be able to choose which cognitive activity they want to work on, or which friend they would like to sit beside at snack.
If the teacher has placed clay and water color paints out on the table, the child may want to only use water colors that day. The offer to play with clay can be extended, but everyone will be much happier and productive if there is a choice. It’s hard to be curious or explore things more deeply if your day is too regimented or you aren’t given an opportunity to choose. The preschool world is a process-driven world, not a product-driven one. Often adults will think kids should do something new each day or listen to a brand new story when the child is most interested in trying the activity again and again or listening to Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus for the twenty-fifth time. A loving preschool offers children the opportunity to choose, to be curious, to persevere, to fail, and to succeed.
The work of children is play. Yes, they have fun and laugh and are sometimes downright silly, but they are growing and learning with each day, each friend, and each choice. A great preschool will have lots of opportunities for a child to play, develop friends and feel loved in the choices they make each day. There is plenty of time for sitting still, completing worksheets, memorizing flash cards, and reviewing for SOLs in the future.
Children deserve the opportunity to have their best year being whatever age they are at the time, not constantly preparing for the next year. I hope we do invest in preschool education for every child in this country, but for the investment to truly pay off, the plan has to include a lot of play.