"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3.1)
In the preschool, we are in the planting season, a time to nurture growth. We are given seeds. They are ours to grow, but they don't come in nice neat packets; there are no clear instructions. We just know that within each seed is the potential to blossom.
All children are born with an innate desire to learn. Our job as parents and teachers is to nurture that innate desire, so that the child may continue to blossom and learn at his or her optimal potential. Children look to the adults around them for the sunshine, the elements that nurture the growth.
Why are these years so important?
In the last decade, brain imaging techniques have given us the hard knowledge that supports what we have known intuitively. We know that 90% of the brain develops by age 5. We know that brains change as a result of experience.
When it comes to the season of early childhood, what are the elements that prepare the child to be successful in school?
That depends on how you look at the goal of education. Jean Piaget asked the key question: "Are we forming children who are only capable of learning what is already known? Or, should we try to develop creative and innovative minds capable of discovery from the preschool age on through life?" We can never teach everything that is known. Success in our rapidly changing world depends on being able to think creatively. Our goal in the early years is to prime the child for a love of learning - to give the child the disposition to learn, and to engender the habits of being successful. These are the essential elements for nurturing the child as a learner.
It has been shown that children who are most successful in later school years are those who feel good about themselves, are creative, independent, have problem solving skills, and who can get along with others. Play is uniquely suited to developing these elements. "Smart" is defined as being skilled in curiosity and critical thinking. "Smart" is not doing it faster or learning more sooner.
The children who are most successful in school have spent more of their time with open-ended toys such as blocks, dramatic play and open-ended art activities, instead of those who have spent time doing worksheets, or in more passive learning.
Of the four types of learning, Knowledge, Skills, Feelings and Dispositions, it is the last two (feelings and dispositions) that are the most important. These provide the foundation upon which the child builds the knowledge and skills. The latter can be gathered, observed and practiced at any time. The early years provide the best window of opportunity to develop the Feelings (e.g., competence, sense of belonging, security, a love of learning and feelings about oneself and others) and Dispositions (such as curiosity, humor, creativity). For example, there is a huge difference between having writing skills, and having the disposition to write.
A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics says that free and unstructured play is healthy and, in fact, essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and intellectual milestones, as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient. This report was written in response to forces threatening free play and unscheduled time. Every interaction the child has with the environment has the potential to nurture learning or to stunt it.
Time for spontaneous play contributes more to learning potential than a schedule loaded with so-called "get-smart" toys. Talking to a child (live language) is more effective than videos, flash cards or worksheets. Learning presented in the context of real-life situations is more meaningful than rote learning of isolated facts (which become quickly forgotten trivia). Children need practice with choosing, doing, thinking, innovating, and taking safe risks, rather than being involved in right-answer tasks. Children need practice negotiating, hypothesizing and problem solving. They need to be involved in make-believe events and to have a chance to create their own materials.
Children need activity in order to keep their brains receptive to learning. Children learn best by doing, playing, trying out, and initiating. Even older children and adults learn best through activity, but they have the cognitive skills that younger children lack to withstand learning by passive, rote, drill methods.
Preschool parents at TBI had the chance during Back-to-School Night to experience some of the ways their children learn through play. They got to play, to do an art project, to listen to a story. We do teach academic skills, but the methods look different than what one may expect. We teach motor skills that lead to writing, using clay, painting, drawing and other fine motor practice. We teach intellectual skills that lead to reading and math competence, through activities involving sorting, matching, classifying, recognizing patterns and problem solving. We teach language skills, not memorization. We use PLAY as the sunshine to grow learners."
Excerpted from the preschool's website