Choosing a balanced preschool experience

Play or early learning towards academic growth? Which one is more important in preschool? As the parent of a 7 year-old and now a 1 year-old, I have tossed and turned between these two seeming extremes of what a child most needs in the early years. While my educator brain hears and knows that play is a child’s work, my mommy brain cannot shut out the fact that many well-meaning parents just like me wonder what to do to lay a strong foundation that will grow capable, motivated learners.

After much reading and research, working with families, preschools and children I have come to this conclusion –Children need opportunities for balanced growth. Balanced growth comes from a balance of child-initiated play and adult-designed activities. Play is a child’s most serious work, and, it is through play and exploration that that children experience balanced growth.

It is easy to imagine children running around and laughing but is that what play looks like that leads to essential early growth? Yes and No. Rich, complex play is not often found at the casual playground play date or in most homes. Similarly, it is easy to imagine worksheets, alphabet charts and counting activities as the basis for teacher-led activities but these are not the experiences that lead to strong intellectual growth. My tossing and turning has led me to identify these experiences and activities that can lead to balanced growth.

We are Nature
Nature is not a place to go to. Nobody else knows that better than a young child. Young children come wired with instincts, curiosity and wonder that draws them to trees, pebbles, sand, water and of course puddles! Research continues to show that children who spend time outdoors; exploring, playing, creating and imagining are quieter, focused, healthier and able to learn academic material voraciously. Whether at preschool or home, look for opportunities that invite your child to come into intimate contact with natural elements. Allow children to dig, collect, touch, feel, express and build. Provide ample time for outdoor explorations and don’t structure all of the time.

Babblers, Talkers, Writers and Readers

The ability to read seems to crown the many complex language milestones that a child achieves along the way. Reading is just one facet of being a strong communicator and learner of language. All round linguistic growth includes all of these: being spoken to constantly as a baby, the use of sign language, speaking mother-ese (the undulating, baby-oriented tone most adults naturally take on while speaking to an infant or toddler), exposure to multiple languages, being read to for the sheer joy of story and reading, access to child-friendly reading materials – picture and board books, reading for joy modeled by adults, access to writing instruments at an early age, encouragement to draw, scribble, scratch and “pretending to write”, story-dictation by children to adults and eventually activities that help children explore how a word is made up of sounds, how sounds blend together to make words. Strong preschool-age linguistic growth involves a carefully attending to every stage of linguistic growth and within each stage, exposure to the many ways in which language is used, understood and enjoyed. Look for a combination of real-life, social, independent work and guided language exposure in a strong preschool program.

Get Messy!
Art does not only mean crayons, markers, pencils and paint. Art also means clay, mud, found objects, recyclables, tape, pinecones, ink, drills, wood and electrical circuits. Art is distinct from craft that involves using a specific medium and technique to often create a product that is gifted or presented to someone else. Look for ways in which mixed media and unconventional objects can be provided as provocations for children to express and create with. A rich art experience allows sensorial explorations and open-ended opportunities for creating. An artistic foundation is completed with exposure to music and dance including listening, singing, following beats on an instrument, creative movement and cultural dances.

Scientists at Heart

Have you played I-am-your-picker-upper? Yes, you have. Your toddler throws something from her high chair and you pick it up. She does it again and you pick up again. The game goes till you finally wake up to her experiment. Toddlers and preschoolers are wired to figure out how the world works through experimentation. A lively preschool environment offers a variety of materials and also teacher-designed activities that invite children to explore and learn about materials and phenomena (think of a simple experiment about which objects sink versus those that float). The next time you find your preschooler jamming a square peg into a round hole don’t stop her. Instead kneel beside her and offer her some more holes to jam the peg into.

Pattern Makers

The human brain sorts, categorizes and identifies patterns. Puzzles, sorters, scales, measuring tools, counters, pattern makers support the natural need for the brain to see and create pattern. Patterning is the basis of mathematical thinking. The best patterning experiences are balanced. They invite children to systematically work through activities that require sorting and identifying a pattern just like a puzzle or counter does. They also invite creativity by allowing children to create their own patterns. It is easier to find preschool classrooms filled with single-outcome puzzles and sorters. Look also for those materials that invite pattern creation and even experimentation that deviates from the pattern.

Drama Kings and Queens
Children love stories. They love to hear them and as their language skills grow they like to create them, to tell them and to act them out. Dramatic play is a significant avenue for children to wrestle with social issues, to know right from wrong and learn how to “get along with others.” A strong preschool has a dramatic play area with open-ended materials like fabric and blocks but importantly enough open-ended time for children to imagine stories and act them out.

Let the Imagination Run Wild

Play can be social and it can also be solitary. Solo play, with imaginary playmates, dolls, little characters, pets and play animals is also essential. Children flirt with wild imaginations, create fantasylands, act out emotional dilemmas, and investigate societal roles by taking on personas through solitary imaginary play. This play, like dramatic play, while not social with a live human being is every bit as social. It is an expression of a child’s internal life. Look for opportunities, both at preschool and home, to give your child space and time to be by themselves – when nothing is planned, when they are not being asked to do anything and when they can get into small, safe, cozy but stimulating spaces to create their own worlds.

I hope you use these pointers both in deciding how you will engage your little one at home and also as markers of what you might look for in a preschool setting. A magical balance of experiences between home and preschool, between what the child initiates and what the adults around her respond with, leads to that much sought after balanced growth.

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