By Natalie Gilmore
As a parent of three boys, I know how exciting and emotional it can be when choosing a preschool. We love our children unconditionally. We hope that when we leave them in the care of their first teachers, they recognize and support their strengths, as well as nurture their areas of growth. We also want a learning environment that envelops best practices for Early Childhood Education. For me, that was finding a preschool for my children that was play-based and child-centered.
The search turned out more difficult than I expected. After visiting multiple programs, I decided to enroll my boys at All Seasons Preschool in Inver Grove Heights. The decision was a commitment, as the drive was forty minutes each way. Their teacher was a former colleague and mentor of mine and I knew she would give my boys a preschool experience they deserved.
My oldest two boys are now in junior high and my youngest is approaching the preschool years. I am grateful to be back in the classroom, providing play-based education to this growing community. With growth comes new families and interest in our program. Last week our principal gave a tour to a perspective family. I overheard the parent say that we were the fourth preschool she had visited, and all of the preschools were play-based. As much as I would love to have that family in our school community, I was delighted to hear that she had so many options for preschools that were rooted in play. The pendulum is beginning to swing back to where our earliest theorist on child development believed it should be and that is play-based education.
I love when parents tour my classroom and ask how children learn through play. I am sometimes at a loss for words with the excitement at the opportunity to share with them what I know. I always begin with the blocks, explaining how development is fostered through these materials. The block area is one of the more organized spaces in my classroom because it is where a child becomes an engineer, a mathematician, an author, a teacher and a scientist. For me, it is the most important space of the classroom because it supports the whole child and all areas of development.
I spend a lot of time video taping children working in the classroom, especially in the block area. It is an invaluable tool, as it helps me listen more carefully and observe more deeply. In the following clip, you will see three children working together, collaborating and organizing their thoughts and ideas as they build. You will see symmetry, balance and patterning in their designs. You will also notice how the children are negotiating and compromising to keep the play sustained. It is a beautifully orchestrated moment in their day when the teacher is within reach, but not interfering.
I have watched this clip a dozen times and with each view I notice something special. I was especially moved by the support they give one another. They use words, such as "ta-da" and phrases of encouragement, "This is amazing!" and "Great job, Christopher...great job!" The children clearly demonstrate how learning is supported through play. They respect each other's work by being aware of their bodies in a small space. They use precise language to plan and organize their ideas. They are managing their emotions, as they move between ego-centrism and accepting another's point of view. Math skills are reinforced as they experiment with shape, height, distance and counting. There are endless opportunities for creative expression, as each gives their ideas of what the building should look like. The ability to focus and attend to building a tunnel was intrinsically motivated, which makes their learning self-directed and meaningful. All of this learning takes place because the environment is designed to support, encourage and facilitate learning through their play.
So where do the children go from here? One of my first experiences at St. John's was an introduction to our Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Wondra. Upon entering her classroom, I noticed an easel with paint, a dramatic play area stocked with dress-ups, dolls, strollers and a play kitchen. There was a cozy space to read books, Legos for building, a puppet theater, dinosaurs and board games. And there were blocks…lots and lots of blocks! After introductions and discussing philosophies, she looked at me and said, “No matter what happens in the field of education, I am going to hold onto play with both hands!” I knew immediately I was in the right place. The purposeful balance of play and structured learning was clearly present in her classroom. I felt a sense of excitement knowing that the students who continued on at St. John's would be in an environment where play is valued and nurtured at the next level. It is truly a wonderful place to work and play.