When I went to Kindergarten it was the place where I learned about being in school. Nobody expected me to be reading by the time the year was over. I had music and art and recess. It was a gentle transition into school and one that made me love learning and be excited to go to school, a feeling that is still with me to this very day.
Sadly, the same is not true for many children today. For them, Kindergarten is a place of high stress and pressure. Stories and questions have been replaced with worksheets and testing. Rugs and shared round tables have been replaced by individual desks. But none of this is true in our Kindergarten at SEEC. Sure, our morning is spent learning math and reading but not in a high pressure, “you have to learn this by the end of the year” way. Instead, it is done in large circles on a rug with conversation, at shared tables with the children discussing what they are learning, and in ways that introduce concepts connected to things the children care deeply about. In the afternoon they head out on their daily trip to the museums of the Smithsonian to more deeply explore some of their ideas, to ask questions and search for answers, and to learn to look carefully at the world around them.
Let me give you and example of how this works. During the fall months our Kindergarten teachers noticed the children had a strong interest in Star Wars. For months they used that interest to teach everything from reading to appropriate behavior, from marketing strategies to the elements of a fiction story. Some of the activities that happened during these months included the following…
The classroom made connections between the women of Star Wars and the First Ladies of our country, exploring everything from their clothing to their characteristics. They explored the First Ladies exhibit in the National Museum of American History and through careful looking noticed that Michelle Obama’s dress looked very similar to the dress worn by Princess Leia!
They talked about Luke Skywalker and then visited the National Portrait Gallery to look at a painting of William Campbell, a fighter pilot who flew more than 100 missions across three different wars. They talked about the characteristics of a hero and what makes a person brave and what courage looks like.
They learned math and compared their own heights to the height of C3PO, learning to measure and compare.
They learned about the elements found in fiction stories as they explored the Star Wars story.
And, of course, there was a lot of learning about space and the stars!
At SEEC we also believe that art and music are vital parts of the curriculum and we have playground time every day. We have a Spanish teacher who comes several times each week and a researcher from the Smithsonian who comes to teach science as well. All of this is done in ways that are engaging and fun—no high pressure, no testing. But there is a lot of conversation, a lot of questions being asked by both the teachers and the children, and a lot of curiosity. Do our children learn to read by the end of the year? Those of them who are ready to read absolutely do, the rest leave us with the skills they need to make that leap in first grade. Do they do well when they leave us for “regular” school? Absolutely. The biggest concern we hear from parents is that when their child gets to their new school they get in trouble for asking so many questions. If that’s the biggest issue that comes up we’ll take it because ultimately the best learning comes from asking questions. So we will keep encouraging questions, helping children learn to look at the world around them carefully and with great curiosity and allowing them to explore their own ideas and search for their own answers to things that interest them. Because we believe that is what Kindergarten should be– a gentle transition into school that leaves you hungry to learn more.