What should preschool look like? What does learning look like?
Occasionally in my job in early childhood education, I will hear someone say - "No wonder they love school - they don't have to do anything." I can't help hear this with a hint of - "nothing really important really happens here."
While it is true, that it is hard to "see" the learning in a class where people are dressed as a half knight/half bunny - I want to assure you that it is there. No, these kids are not at desks, being drilled on state capitals. But, one might argue that that is not exactly the most effective type of learning either - although it is a bit easier to identify.
One of the things we have talked about as a staff this year is the difference between learning and teaching. You can spend a lot of time creating a lesson plan and teaching something - but it does not necessarily follow that there is meaningful learning happening. As early childhood teachers, we are constantly in a metaphoric game of catch with the children. We throw a ball out - or they throw one out (or sometimes you throw one out) and we catch it, consider how to throw it again, so that the child might catch it - and toss it back.
Take for example the play in the 3-4's class. One of the children saw a play with her family one weekend and shared this experience with her teachers. Jessica asked if she would like to create a play in class - and she said yes, that she would like to. As a class, they talked about what a 'play' is - they shared ideas, agreed and disagreed with each other. They created a group story, found costumes, drew a backdrop, made tickets and performed it for their parents. Recently this idea of 'play' has popped up again and the class is embarking on a new story. It is different this time, more complex. The learning that is happened is clearly visible if you look and listen. Children have been involved in different parts of this ongoing project. They have had to share ideas, at times, stand up for their own ideas and at other times compromise. They have had to take turns, coordinate their behaviors as a group - something that a year ago - as a two year olds, would have been nearly impossible for 16 children to do. In drawing their ideas of the story and the background, they have honed their fine motor skills and their ability to express their ideas symbolically - an extraordinarily important and implicitly authentic part of written communication. In their current version of the story children have considered what makes a 'good' story - discussing 'what happens' in a story. Is just having a 'celebration' an interesting story? They decided that something has to happen in a story - so, what began as just a party for a knight and his friends - has evolved into the king actually getting stollen (maybe by zombies) first and the other characters have to save him (this 'power' and 'good vs bad' is a re-occuring theme in some of their self-initiated play time.) They have thought about costumes and designed their own and solicited help from adults as well. This project continues with many children involved. It is something that could not happen with only one child - it has to happen as a community. It is big ideas - and the children take it seriously.
In the 4-5's class the community has recently become interested in planets and the sun. They have used books and the internet to research planets (a skill they have been honing all year on a variety of subjects). They have discussed how planets rotate around the sun and even used their bodies to act out to help them understand this rather complex idea. They have begun to create their own planets - giving them attributes based on their interests and their growing knowledge of planets. They get to hear their fellow classmates' create as teachers use large and small groups as a teaching strategy that encourages discussion and shared ideas. They are able to hear a variety of inventions coming out of imagination, information and experience. They are adapting their own ideas based on the ideas of others - this is important social learning as almost all of us find ourselves in work/family and friendship social situations where we have to work with others to generate new ideas that are made better by a collaborative effort. They have created a solar system using painting and relief and are beginning 3-D models. They have researched the names of the planets, learning that scientists name things to be able to differentiate between attributes. They are labeling their work with letters and words, or having teachers label their ideas - assuring that the children learn the real meaning of language; to communicate information to others. They continue to refine their fine motor skills through their work and develop new vocabulary about the world around them that helps them communicate their ideas and ask new questions. Their work/play has meaning - it is real and holistic and is something they care about.
AND - A big part of everyday in all of our classes the children play. I saw this in the 2's class yesterday - small children confidently moving around the room - using tools and toys in THEIR room - and beginning to connect with each other. Very small children, empowered by their own experience. Play allows children to choose the materials, interactions and ideas that interest them the most at school. They work collaboratively, try new things, laugh, argue and expand and adapt their play, skills and interest based on what they see around them. Play is the central aspect of early childhood. It is important because, yes, they learn new skills as they play - it is the work of early childhood. But more importantly it is independence, autonomy, power and respect - something too often robbed of young children. We feel if they spend all day at school being told what to do, how to do it and what to think by adults ("No, that isn't the right answer - guess again") - if everything was driven by teachers - if they were only consumers of adult knowledge - they would never be empowered by their own potential and know that they could/should be inventors of ideas and producers/creators of knowledge.
These examples from our classes are literally off the top of my head, as they are the projects we discussed at staff meetings today - but there is so much happening in the few hours they attend school every week . Everyday - we see learning and we adapt our teaching to extend, allow for and illuminate the possibilities that present themselves in our vibrant classroom communities. The children are amazing and different - and they make every day, every project possible. What children know at The Cooperative Preschool is that not only can they share their ideas - but their ideas, questions, interests, joys, personalities and struggles are important and valued. Our culture often treats young children's ideas as cute at best, and trivial at worst. At school they are not this. At their preschool they are the inventors of possibility and we feel lucky to sometimes be the guide and sometimes be guided in their path of learning, living and constant growth.