As is often the case I was scrolling through SEEC’s Twitter feed one morning on the metro and I came across an article from Scientific American entitled, How to Prime Preschoolers for Success. The article focuses on a few key points:
Preschools should focus less on memorization of letters and numbers.
Conversations build language skills and that aids in future academic achievement.
Programs that support executive functioning skills like multi-tasking, impulse control, and focus also support children academically and socially.
I am always looking for articles that reflect our practice, but truth be told it can often be difficult because of our unique setting. In fact, even after working at SEEC for seven years I often find it difficult to articulate to those who aren’t in early childhood what SEEC does and why it’s so valuable to young children. This article really spoke to me and got me excited about how well aligned our approach is to the research.
The article highlights Tools of the Mind a curriculum that, in preschool, centers around play.
In a Tools PreK classroom, a play theme unifies the room. The year begins with adaptable play themes close to children’s lives, and over the course of the year, as children’s levels of make-believe play, self-regulation and executive functions develop, the play themes develop as well.
Researchers who have studied Tools suggest that children performed better on executive function tasks than those in schools who did not use it. The research suggests that these results were likely tied to the fact that children are able to play and therefore, have to plan (in fact, with Tools they actually formally plan their play), collaborate, and problem-solve. And in addition to practicing these important skills, the play itself is innately interesting to a child and therefore, they are more engaged.
At SEEC, we think similarly about play and engagement. Our faculty finds creative ways to incorporate play in museum settings. For toddlers, we may bring toy airplanes to accompany us on a trip to the National Air and Space Museum. For preschoolers, we may pretend to build a campfire in front of a painting that looks like a good campsite.
The article talks about the importance of choice noting a 2018 study from the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology that suggests a correlation between autonomy and executive function skills. While SEEC does not utilize the Montessori-style activities as referenced in the article, we do think choice is extremely important. In fact, we follow an emergent curriculum and observe the children in play and conversation, using these interactions as to inspire classroom themes and activities. It is also part of our daily routines, faculty empower students to make personal choices and gain independence in their self-care. And though we often work on a tight schedule because of our museum model, we emphasize choice as much as possible in other areas, like art-making, play, and in the formation of classroom rules and routines.
Perhaps the part of the article that was most exciting was its insight into the importance of conversations:
“…a higher quality and quantity of children’s turn-taking conversations helps them build their oral language skills, laying a foundation for reading and writing.”
Conversation is one of the cornerstones of our practice. Even with our infants, you will observe faculty engaging in conversation. They do not simply speak at them, they watch for clues and respond to infants and toddlers in a respectful way that builds their understanding of vocabulary and concepts. By preschool, we see children having turn-taking conversations in the classroom and the museum. Many of our faculty members employ modified thinking routines from Project Zero or looking strategies commonly used in museum education. It is during these conversations that we observe children not only using language skills, but also practicing focus and self-regulation. Because they are also actively involved in the conversations (i.e. truly be listened to and shaping the conversation itself) they are naturally more engaged and likely to learn.
This type of rich conversation doesn’t have to take place in museums only. Educators can do this through dialogic reading, the use of objects in the classroom, the natural environment or by using museum resources. In fact, this combination of book, object, and visual can be highly effective. But as the article mentions, educators need to be trained to be effective. Its not always easy allowing for autonomy while also supporting a calm environment in which children can be heard.
As our understanding of teaching and learning grows, I hope that preschools will move away from models focused strictly on rote memorization. At SEEC, we hope to help educators see how they can support rich learning environments in and out of the classroom while allowing for choice and play. Reciting your ABC’s and counting to 10 are important skills for preschoolers, but with the properly trained educators we can help plant the seeds for children who will be successful leaders, collaborators, and problem-solvers.