In a culture that measures learning by test scores and right and wrong answers, it can be hard to make the case for play based learning. The first thing I tell most families on tours is that we are unapologetically play based - and always have been. The reality is big, authentic learning is complex, integrated and happening at a million miles an hour. Children are learning all the time - with and without adults. Teachers at school work really hard to create an environment that challenges children to try new things, be self directed, work with others, to push their own boundaries, to have a voice that is listened to and taken seriously and that engages their incredible curiosity. Our teachers work to know the children, understand their gifts and strengths, have relationships with them and respect them as individuals. The learning is integrated, dynamic and holistic and looks different around the classroom with each individual.
We hope that each child leaves preschool with a strong sense of their own ability to learn, think and generate ideas. We hope that they leave seeing themselves as producers of ideas and knowledge and not simply consumers of adult information. We hope that they can make their own choices, solve problems and not depend on adults to tell them where to go next, how to think and to tell them when they have been successful or have failed. We hope they leave the school knowing why they would bother wanting to learn new skills like reading, or writing, or counting, or drawing, or singing. Because even if they are not ready to master these skills - a good educational program for young children creates a foundation for such learning - a foundation that allows them to learn why these skills and processes are important and valuable - FOR THEM. Although we have no particular agenda for reading/writing skills it happens a lot in the classroom. Today a parent said to me - "I couldn't believe she wrote all of these things here and draws so much - when we sit down at home and I ask her to write her name she wants nothing to do with it." Sure, many children have little interest in performing skills for adults (even their parents - ask my daughters!) - It is a developmental thing and particular to many of their personalities. They are doing these things in their own moments because they are writing or drawing for themselves often and not for us. They are learning to write or draw or create music, or draw or climb - because, guided by their own ideas, curiosities and passions they need to do this to accomplish a goal (often a much larger goal than just learning to write the letter A) that is living inside of their heads.
Last week I sat down with one of our 4 year-olds who was outraged as he was sure that someone had taken his hot glue creation. He is sort of awesome with the hot glue gun and told me it was a pretty amazing thing he had created. He said he needed a sign for the classroom that told everyone that it was taken. I let him know he should totally make one. He said he couldn't do it because he didn't know how to write all the letters and I let him know I was pretty good at knowing how to write the letters and I could show him. He spent 20 minutes writing "Someone took my hot glue" and I wrote "creation" because he said he was really tired. He was not, however bored or disinterested. He was passionate about getting this done - it had meaning for him and so he was intrinsically motivated to make it happen. This is the most writing he has done at school after being here for a few years. We have not pushed it. His fine motor skills are really not even there yet - his fingers are not strong enough to easily form the letters - but it will come - it always does. But he knows why writing can be important now - even if the next time he will still need help.
We hope every single child leaves the school empowered by their own interests, abilities and capacity to learn. This is where we, as teachers, spend our time and energy. We never want to create an environment where we are looking for or focused on a child's deficit, where their learning feels like a performance for adults and where they feel like their developmental windows are being pried open to meet someone else's needs or wants. We try so hard to move away from a fear based and deficit based educational system - and I have seen this happen in many well-intentioned places. I have been teaching for 30 years and have seen children leave the early childhood programs I have been apart of knowing a wide variety of information, being all over the developmental spectrum for skill development, having different passions and interests and different gifts and talents. That is what makes teaching amazing - the kids are truly and spectacularly different.
And do you know how many of those families have ever come back to me a few years later and told me their children never learned to count or read or know colors or days of the week (even though this has NEVER been a priority in any of the classes I have been a part of)? None. They all get there. The beauty of learning is that they all take their own beautiful, sometimes bumpy and unpredictable and often extraordinary path.
- Although I write most of these posts, they most often represent conversations we have as a staff at The Cooperative Preschool. I am privileged to work with incredibly talented women - they represent the best of the early childhood profession.