Lower School Director describes the process of shaping a new program, and identifies the fundamentals of the new curriculum and what a day in Preschool at Charles Wright might look like.
By Nick Zosel-Johnson
Early on in the process of designing our new preschool program we asked teachers a simple question: “What are your best memories from childhood?”
Vivid recollections and lively conversation elicited a remarkable list of experiences: Building forts, towers, and sand castles. Singing songs. Reading stories with a loved adult. Jumping in puddles and climbing trees. Painting. Drawing. Building. Making fairy houses and animal homes. Running through the woods and playing with sticks. Sorting, categorizing, and collecting. Trying to understand how things work.
As faculty members reflected on their discussion, several common characteristics emerged: autonomy, creativity, and constructing meaning. As they recounted their experiences of play, teachers talked about the freedom to take initiative and pursue ideas and questions that interested them – autonomy. They described opportunities to experiment with ideas and express themselves with materials – creativity. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they identified the ways in which they constructed knowledge and developed skills related to their exploration – meaning. These values provide the foundation of our new preschool program.
What is the new program?
Our program is designed to reflect best practices as articulated by education and child development researchers. It is an emergent, project-based curriculum approach that provides opportunities for children to develop dispositions and learn skills that provide the foundation for lifetime learning. Our preschoolers will benefit from time with our language, music, and science specialists. In addition, our 107 acres provide an active learning laboratory, where children and teachers will spend intentional time exploring the creek, searching for amphibians, observing wildlife, and simply playing together.
The difference between this emergent approach and a teacher-driven thematic curriculum is that skills and dispositions remain the same from year to year but content and questions change. Such a model allows teachers to exercise their autonomy and creativity, too! Rather than covering the same topics each year and presenting skills as isolated elements, teachers work with children to identify topics to explore. Then, using a developmental scope-and-sequence, teachers introduce skills as tools that align with and extend the experience.
What will families and visitors see?
- Warm, reciprocal relationships between teachers and children that creates a climate of trust where learning can flourish.
- Classrooms humming with purposeful, authentic activity, where children do not do the same thing at the same time or practice isolated skills on worksheets, but pursue interests and apply skills in context.
- Inviting spaces for active, group, and individual play.
- Art materials that are varied and accessible, inviting children to tell their stories and reveal their learning in multiple ways.
- Classroom design that provides a seamless transition between home and school with natural wood furniture, muted colors, and beautiful items from the natural world.
- Walls showing children’s work and documentation of learning – photos and explanations of children’s ideas, experiences, and skills being taught through the project.
The year ahead is full of possibility! In this ever-changing world we can be certain of very little, but what we do know is that successful adults are curious, self-motivated, critical thinkers.
What does emergent curriculum look like?
Picture this scene: in a three-year old classroom during the first days of school, a group of children sat around their family-style lunch table and the conversation turned to speculation about where their lunch came from.
“Ms. Johnson brings a big lunchbox from her house with all the food in it for us!”
“It comes in a car!”
“On a rolly table.”
“It comes out of the refrigerator.”
“Trader Joe’s and roll it to us.”
The teachers who participated in this conversation – a genuine exchange of ideas – asked the children how they could find out where the food came from. The children decided to ask Ms. Johnson when she came back to pick up the food cart after lunch.
Ms. Johnson explained that the cart rolled back to the kitchen where she prepared the meals.
Wide-eyed, the children marveled that there was a kitchen at school!
In class meeting that afternoon, the teacher asked them what they wondered about the kitchen. She transcribed their questions onto a large white board.
“What’s in it?”
“Are there spoons?”
“Does Ms. Johnson have a big pot?”
How big is the pot? Can it fit a lot of ‘pgetti?”
The teacher asked how they could find out the answers and the class quickly agreed they wanted to visit the kitchen. That afternoon, the children spontaneously began drawing pictures of the kitchen. Some who were interested in writing began to ask about the letters in “kitchen” and the teacher did a mini-lesson on letters and sounds of /c/ and /k/. She wrote ‘kitchen’ on an index card and added it to the class Box of Important Words.
Once in the kitchen, the children were transfixed by the boxes of food being delivered, the trays being prepared, and their food cart standing ready to be loaded. They noted spoons, knives, and even the “holey thing” they learned was called a colander. (That’s a great word for a three-year old!) They interviewed Ms. Johnson, who showed them the refrigerator, dishwasher, and stove.
Back at the classroom, the children’s excitement spilled over into the dramatic play center which turned into a kitchen where little cooks prepared and delivered food. At another table, children continued drawing images of the kitchen, adding specific details based on what they had observed.
Over the next few weeks the teachers responded to the children’s interests by offering a variety of experiences that extended children’s thinking about the kitchen, so central to their experience of school, and offered opportunities for specific skills to be introduced. As the experience continued, children began to wonder what else and who else lay beyond the door of their classroom. The ongoing project became a study of the people and spaces in the school, which was a perfect way for children to learn about their new community. They visited other classrooms, the director, the front desk, and the janitor’s closet. They recounted every field trip on documentation panels with photos, drawings, and text. Through exploration and discussion they learned about the relationships between and among people. Children asked their first question, “How does our food get here?” and that began a six-week project about their new school.
One important thing to remember was that the kitchen project did not consume every moment and every activity. It was the overarching topic of discussion and work, but all usual opportunities were available to children every day. Some days all the children were busy participating in project-related work, on other days just a few children, but at any point they could respond in rich detail to the question, “What are you learning at school?” They were invested, they applied skills, and had an authentic experience of discovery.
Our early childhood program is designed to instill these traits in our youngest learners. We eagerly await the furniture and supplies for the new classroom, and we are even more excited to welcome the children and families who are joining the preschool. These children — and their teachers — will bring to life the values the faculty identified back in the initial planning meeting: autonomy, creativity, and meaning. Come see. It will be powerful.
*for about Preschool at Charles Wright, visit www.charleswright.org/earlychildhood or watch for the full story in the upcoming issue of TIES magazine*