As children arrive for preschool at The Kinder Garden School in Blue Ash, one little girl roams the room to share her stickers with others.
“You’re going to run out of stickers!” says Assistant Director Miss Melissa Chadick, to which the girl replies, “I don’t care!” A little boy in a Cincinnati Reds T-shirt walks by and shows off the rows of stickers marching up his arms. “Look at all your stickers,” says Miss Melissa. “Do you know how many you have?” And he proceeds to count them off for her: one, two, three, four, five, six!
When it comes to the preschooler, even simple activities like sharing stickers can quickly turn into a teaching moment. And that’s the whole idea behind preschool — it might look like kids are just playing, but they’re actually participating in carefully planned activities with real learning behind every task. “Everything about play accents a child’s understanding of his world,” writes Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam in On Becoming Preschool Wise: Optimizing Educational Outcomes What Preschoolers Need to Learn (Parent-Wise Solutions; 2004). “From right and wrong to parental expectations, play reveals in a public way how a child thinks, reasons and applies concepts learned the day before.”
Easing Into the Day
At The Kinder Garden School, which offers both traditional and Montessori preschool rooms, kids arrive and occupy themselves with books, drawing, blocks and other activities as assistant teacher Miss Theresa Guye walks the room to oversee and guide them through questions and comments, and gently reminds them to put away their materials when they’ve finished with them.
“We don’t want to overwhelm them with instructions right away,” she says. “Some have just woken up, so they’re not quite ready. But some days they arrive and you can tell they’re ready to go!” It’s all about flexibility on the teacher’s part, she explains. While she and Miss Melissa have a plan for the children in the traditional preschool room, it’s one that can be easily modified, depending on their mood and interests on a given day.
Once the children settle in, Circle Time begins. Miss Melissa runs through the plans for the morning so kids know what’s coming next, and then reads one of the new library books she brought in that morning: Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown. She stops to ask kids questions about the words and images they see on the pages, as well as engaging them about their everyday experiences, making story time a two-way activity.
All About the Centers
After the story, it’s time for the kids to explore the different centers of the room. They can choose from Dramatic Play, Art, the Library, Science and Math, Writing, Blocks, or Shelf Work, which contains plastic tubs of items that can be counted, sorted or used in many creative ways. Most of the centers receive attention, as the class of 15 makes their selection. A gang of boys heads for the Blocks where they devise a game that requires them to jump over the blocks, while a group of girls makes its way to the Art Center, loaded with crayons, paper, glue, tape and cut-out shapes and letters. Three children head for Dramatic Play, where they pretend at being an architect with wooden pegs, tools and a mobile workshop. And the rest pair off to Science and Math to play with magnets, or the Writing Station where they can write a story, draw a picture to accompany a story, or use fill-in strips to complete sentences, like “If I were an architect, I would build a ___________.”
“Not all kids can write,” says Miss Melissa, explaining that even if they just write squiggles, that has meaning for them. It’s known as “emergent writing” and basically means that kids are beginning to understand that writing is a way to communicate ideas and stories. Emergent writing usually develops along with reading abilities, and the two actually help improve the other — better writing means better reading, and the other way around.
The purpose behind all of these tasks is just as varied as the centers themselves — while Art encourages fine motor skills as kids learn to manipulate crayons and glue bottles, the writing station can enhance literacy skills by getting kids to practice recognizing and writing letters. The preschool years are all about mastery and independence, developing fine and gross motor skills, cognitive abilities, and learning about concepts like self-care and responsibility. In Miss Melissa’s class, kids work independently, explore and create on their own, and clean up after themselves, all with little guidance from the teachers, unless of course, it becomes necessary: over at the Blocks Center, Miss Melissa has joined the boys, and they’re soon learning about teamwork as she gets them to help her build a “Good Guys Headquarters.”
Although the children can choose the center they’d like to explore, and can switch stations if they like, Miss Melissa explains that the teachers sometimes assign centers, to make sure that kids are exploring all areas of the classroom, and not just spending all their time on art. This is also an opportunity for the teachers to assign younger children to work with older children, so that 3-year-olds can benefit from the wisdom of 5-year-olds. During the school year, kids will also do what is called Table Work, where they sit at tiny tables and chairs and use items from their personal pencil boxes, another opportunity to learn about responsibility as they must care for their boxes and put them away when finished.
Run Around and Play
After Center Work, the children head to Stretch-n-Grow, a mobile physical education class designed especially for young children. A certified Youth Fitness Specialist leads the kids in games that help develop gross motor skills, all while learning about health and wellness. On this day, the kids learn all about the best way to pet a dog. After Stretch-n-Grow, it’s time for the playground, to blow off steam. The playground is the perfect opportunity to develop burgeoning social skills — at the Kinder Garden School, classes overlap and kids get to meet and play with others that they might not see during other parts of the day. And of course, there are always minor disputes that keep the teachers on their toes and give them a chance to explain what is — and what is not — friendly behavior. After some time chasing each other and devising new games at the sandbox and sand table, the children are ready for lunch and a well-deserved nap.