The half day is an integral part of an entire school that extends to high school graduation. The educational and community values are the same. We want an environment that encourages children to relate, to communicate, and to think. Of course, the means to these ends vary at different ages, but the underlying values surrounding teaching and learning, and approaches to curriculum in the broadest sense are the same. Since the beginning of the school we have chosen not to call the program "preschool" because we want to avoid the suggestion that what happens with these young students is anything less than real school.
The half day classes promote social, emotional and intellectual growth through a rich environment emphasizing exploration, imagination, interaction, and communication. The program is intentional; that means we consider carefully all the variables - allocation of teacher attention, curriculum, materials, use of space and time, and instructional strategies - in light of their consistency with our educational goals.
What we want for children in our half day
We want the children to love to come to school, to feel safe, happy, and valued. We want to celebrate who they are and help them grow. We want them to feel safe and secure enough to take risks because that's how growth and learning happen. Paul Tillich wrote that "the first duty of love is to listen" - we want to really listen to the children so that they feel known and appreciated for who they are. We want to pay close attention to what they are doing and respond in ways that make them feel truly seen. We want them to love learning, to enjoy using their minds and bodies to acquire skills, solve problems, and meet challenges. We want to help them celebrate what they can do right now and also to help them expand their skills, knowledge, and understanding.
Teachers look for ways to join children in what they are doing and stretch them a little to try something they might be ready for next, to challenge their thinking in appropriate ways. Children also stretch each other - kids will often want to try something they've seen another child doing. They learn by watching others.
We want them to take initiative and responsibility, to learn to make constructive choices, to develop their own affinities and "passionate preferences," to use the resources of this rich environment to pursue their interests. Children have many opportunities to make choices here, but there are clear expectations that those choices be productive and responsible. Teachers will redirect children when they are not.
There are four teachers in each half day class. The teachers are experts in child development and skilled at making fine-tuned observations of individual differences in children and in designing experiences that promote each child's development. They are actively engaged with children throughout the day - building on the floor, reading, painting, or being part of an elaborate pretend play drama. The ongoing goal is to foster language and communication, expansion of ideas, connections with other children, and problem solving. Much of the time is spent in spontaneous play and interaction. In semi-structured activities we create situations in which children are motivated to learn the skills we are trying to teach.
Space and Time
The values of a school are reflected in its use of time and space. The half day space is large and extremely well-equipped. Each of the rooms functions to support different goals of the program.
The art room contains a wide range of materials. Activities are child directed, sometimes in collaboration with a teacher or a group of other children. The emphasis is on process, not product, and each child's creations reflect his or her ideas and skills.
The middle room has puzzles, books, and construction materials as well as materials for reading and math instruction. Reading is taught individually: some children might be working on letter recognition and others might be beginning to read chapter books. There are toys for problem solving, measuring, graphing, counting, creating patterns, sorting or organizing information. Teachers play "mental math" games with the children, using objects to help with counting. Here, as in other areas of the class, teachers support children's discoveries.
The block room is the largest space and has an extensive collection of many types of wooden blocks plus Legos and trains. We want all children to be active builders. This practice with three dimensional construction promotes the visual-spatial understanding children need for math and science. Many children eagerly construct castles, airports, entire cities and stage sets for elaborate imaginary dramas. Themes of dramatic play are supported by toy people, animals, and dozens of Beanie Babies. Pretend play is an essential part of children's development. Other spaces and material - a kitchen and a playhouse as well as a collection of capes, costumes, and puppets - support this theme.
Importance of Imaginative Play
"Play is a central component in children's mental growth. Play helps children make meaning in their world, it helps them learn about themselves, and equally crucially, it helps them to learn how to get along with others" (Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, p. 240)
Imaginative play is a precious commodity that is often devalued or encroached upon when adults get anxious about "academic achievement" in today's competitive society. In fact, this kind of play in childhood forms the foundation upon which learning is based. As children play out their ideas, they practice taking on the role of others and experience the world from another's point of view. This type of thinking and reasoning underlies reading comprehension, and indeed all abstract reasoning.
When children are engaged in imaginative play, they are totally engaged physically, mentally, and emotionally. They are using language, making and sustaining social connections, and trying out their own ideas and elaborating on them. When you ask your children what they did at school and they say "I played," you should be delighted.
Parents are welcome in the classroom. Participating in the classroom gives parents the opportunity to understand their children's school experience at a much deeper level than is possible from a distance.