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The Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K

I am sharing this October 21st New York Times article, The Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K, by Shael Polakow-Suransky and Nancy Nager.  If you haven't read it yet, you should!  Of note is that I received several emails from CHP parents who forwarded the article to me with comments that they thought of CHP when they read it. Enjoy!

WITH the introduction of universal pre-K in New York City, we have created a new entry point into our public school system. This raises a key question: What do we want our children’s first experiences in school to be? What does a good education look like for 4-year-olds?

This summer, Bank Street College of Education led training for 4,000 of New York’s pre-K teachers, including both veterans and hundreds of people who started teaching pre-K for the first time last month. Worried teachers talked about how the pressure to achieve good outcomes on the third-grade state exams has been trickling down to early childhood classrooms in the form of work sheets, skill drills and other developmentally inappropriate methods.
The problem is real, and it is not unique to New York City. Earlier this year, Daphna Bassok and Anna Rorem, educational policy researchers at the University of Virginia, found strong evidence that current kindergarten classrooms rely too heavily on teacher-directed instruction. Their study, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” revealed that the focus on narrow academic skills crowded out time for play, exploration and social interaction. In a 2009 report for the Alliance for Childhood, “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” Edward Miller and Joan Almon reported that kindergarten teachers felt that prescriptive curricular demands and pressure from principals led them to prioritize academic skill-building over play.
This is a false choice. We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor.
While grown-ups recognize that pretending helps children find their way into the world, many adults think of play as separate from formal learning. The reality is quite different. As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time. It is so deeply formative for children that it must be at the core of our early childhood curriculum.
What does purposeful play look like? When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.
In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.
The teacher observes and comments. She shifts from group to group, talking with children about their work (“I see that you made a big red circle.”); helping children resolve a conflict (“You both want to be the mommy. What should we do?”); posing an open-ended question to stimulate exploration and problem-solving (“What do you notice when you use the magnifying glass that is different from when you use your eyes?”); and guiding children to manage themselves (“When you finish your snack, what activity would you like to choose?”).
Barbara Biber, one of Bank Street’s early theorists, argued that play develops precisely the skills — and, just as important, the disposition — children need to be successful throughout their lives. The child “projects his own pattern of the world into the play,” she wrote, “and in so doing brings the real world closer to himself. He is building the feeling that the world is his to understand, to interpret, to puzzle about, to make over. For the future we need citizens in whom these attitudes are deeply ingrained.”
Earlier in the 20th century, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky made the related argument that children’s thinking develops through activity-based learning and social interactions with adults and peers. When teachers base their curriculums on Dr. Vygotsky’s ideas, there are significant benefits for children’s capacity to think, to plan and to sustain their attention on difficult tasks.
Play has long-lasting benefits. What is referred to as self-regulation in preschool becomes resiliency in high school. The University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth has found that this trait, which she famously calls grit, can make or break students, especially low-income students. Over the past three years, the New York City Department of Education developed a framework to support the core behavioral elements that drive college and career readiness. Many of them — persistence, planning, the ability to communicate and the capacity to collaborate — have their roots in early childhood.
Next fall, there will be more students in pre-K in New York City than there are in the entire school system of Atlanta or Seattle. To his credit, Mayor Bill de Blasio has not only pushed for expanding access but has also insisted on improving quality and put real money into training and materials. This is a strong start. But we still need to help parents, administrators and policy makers see what the children themselves know intuitively: Classrooms that pulse with meaningful play are our smartest investment.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, who served as senior deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education from 2011-14, is the president of Bank Street College, where Nancy Nager is a professor of education and child development.

Everything Old is New Again

There are classic children’s games, picture books and toys that stand the test of time.  At CHP, one of those vintage toys that made a resurgence is the jack-in-the-box.

I have many books, puppets, and jack-in-the-boxes in my office.  My first boxes were cast-offs from my children.  By accident, I found this toy to be a great way to soothe a crying child during phase-in.  We would sit on my couch and out came a box and the magic. Children who wandered into my office wanted to play with the boxes too and due to their popularity, I purchased more.  At this writing, I have seven. The boxes sit on a kid-sized shelf in my office for easy access.

Why the focus on this old fashioned toy? I found that there is a lot of learning in that Pop Goes the Weasel playing box! Students look through my child-sized office window and knock when they want to play.  Children who enter my office and find that they cannot just take a box, they need to speak with me first.  I have modeled what each child needs to do to borrow a box: First make eye contact with me and say, “Carol, may I please borrow a jack-in-box?”  I answer, “Of course, but when you finish playing with it, please bring it back.” 

This simple dialog teaches a child if you want something that belongs to someone else, you need to make eye contact and ask for it politely.  It is my hope that this little exercise will be applied again in other situations when a child needs to ask someone for something.  I have overheard some children speaking to their friends who have never borrowed a box, explaining what they need to say to borrow one.  They have become the teachers.

The children also learn that there are times when you can and cannot come into my office to borrow. On my door, at the children’s eye level, there is a two-sided sign. One side says, “It is NOT a jack-in-the-box day and the word NO. The image of the jack-in-the-boxes has an “X” through it. The flip-side of the sign says, “It IS a jack-in-the-box day” and the word YES. Students have learned to read this sign! I also created a little book, now located in the reading area, which tells, with words and pictures, how to borrow a jack-in-the-box. The children enjoy leafing through the book and listening to it when it is read by a teacher.

The jack-in-the-box has more play and learning opportunities.  It is a great fine-motor activity; children need to figure out the way to turn the crank and use a pincher grip to make it play. I have observed children turning the crank very slowly about the time they expect it to spring open.  I believe they are making predictions. When will it pop?  No matter when the little character pops up, it is a happy surprise. CHP kids really like to do this activity with friends, and games have evolved from this. Who can make their box pop first, or last.  I have also observed children negotiating turn taking, hearing things like, “When you are done, can I please use it?”  As we always say in CHP, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”  If the jack-in-the-box you want is in use, next time it just might be your turn.  At the end of play, children know it is their responsibility to return the box as that was the promise they made when they first borrowed it.

Because of this experience, I wonder if a single jack-in-the-box in your home would garner the same popularity as it has in CHP?  My first boxes came to CHP in pretty good shape because they were seldom played with. 
Whether in singular or group play, a toy is great when it is well played with. The more it’s played with, the more wear and tear. At this writing, Max the Wild Thing is nearing the end of his shelf life as he is not working so well anymore. I think that is the best thing you can say about the life of a toy is … it was well used.  Wild Thing boxes are no longer produced but have no fear, I ordered a new box last week… hint, think Puff the Magic Dragon!

There is No Place Like Home

Choosing the unit for the school year is a bit like catching lightening in a bottle.  Our program is tailored to the likes and interests of the children and the children are the ones who let us know what their interests are. This concept might seem strange to an adult learner, but preschoolers’ interests light their fires. Then, within the context of their interests, we infuse developmentally appropriate literacy, math, science, music, art and drama related to the unit concept. 

How do I find out what children want to learn more about?

It starts in the spring. I become a careful listener in the classroom in an effort to find out what the children might be interested in learning the following year. The unit needs to be broad enough to encompass all the disciplines.  I also work very closely with the staff at CHP.  We have weekly group meetings and I meet with each staff member individually.  Each spring, either from the students or the staff, I get an idea about what will be the unit for the following year. That’s the lightening in the bottle part! 

Last spring when the children were working on the amazing transportation mural located in our library area, Nancy, our art teacher, told me that the children working on the mural were just as excited to make the many little homes now on the mural as they were in making the fanciful transportation vehicles. Nancy and I often work closely on the art projects developed at CHP. Eureka! 

A unit about homes. So many possibilities! 

I mentioned the home unit to the staff before the school year ended and they were immediately on board!  This summer, I perused bookstores and websites to collect a nice cache of books (picture books, ABC books, science, math, and music books) featuring the concept of home.

This fall, together we will share what we know about our own homes. The unit will begin in Brooklyn. Your homework assignment is to send in a photo of your home and family.  Isn’t this a nice way for us all to get to know each other?  If you like, please reach out to your family. Maybe someone in your extended family might want to send in a photo of his or her home outside the urban confines of NYC. An interesting home in NYC would be great too! 

Once the unit is underway, we will branch out to explore what we want to know about parts unknown, animal homes and the like. We will eventually cap off the unit with what we have learned about what makes a home a home.

I am very excited about this unit.  It's going to be a great year!

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