Summer 2015 marks Sophia’s first foray into the big leagues … aka camp. We enrolled her into camp in preparation for her starting pre-school this fall. Sophia’s only experience in a group setting with kids her own age has, so far, been limited to two classes: a little gym class when we lived in Maryland and a dance class she attended here in Philadelphia over the summer.
She loved both her classes and we were excited to see her transition to an independent, multi-hour activity. Camp, for her and for us, is a big deal. Sophia will have to learn how to interact with children in a group setting, teachers and counselors. She has to learn to be more independent, to function within specific time boundaries, and follow instructions. As for us, we have to get her ready for camp each morning, drop her off, and pick her up. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that of course there have been tears at drop-off and that is entirely expected though very difficult for us as parents. The only thing I can do, short of pulling her out of camp, is be supportive. Each and every morning if (and this week is really a matter of when) Sophia breaks down during drop off, I say “I know you’re upset and it is okay to feel this way. Mommy is going to be back to pick you up. I will definitely be back at noon to pick you up.” I am told the tears eventually subside (for her anyway).
That is exactly how I describe our life in the last month or so as we took on a task of looking for a preschool for Sophia. Sophia is 3 years old and will turn 4 in October making her the right age to begin transitioning her to a more structured learning environment. Our goals were to find a safe and nurturing school that will foster Sophia’s creativity, instill independence, responsibility and social skills. Despite Evan’s and my STEM-oriented backgrounds, a school focused entirely on academics would not be sufficient as we feel the arts are critical to a child’s cognitive development.
With these goals in mind, we have toured three preschools in the Philadelphia area and were surprised to find such a disparity between the curriculum and facilities in the schools. Some schools (if you would like names and details, email me and I’ll be happy to discuss) offered small classroom sizes, emphasis on individuality, creativity and social responsibility. Children were allocated cubbies and daily classroom responsibilities (lead snack dispenser, water cup filler, classroom representative, etc) were assigned out to some of the children. The very fact that some children had no responsibilities on a given day was a lesson in itself. Other schools had no responsibilities given to the children and in-fact, forced the children on potty breaks at the same time. This, in my opinion, seems like a very juvenile way to treat children most of whom are already potty trained. Furthermore, it does not instill a sense of responsibility for taking care of yourself.
The school that stood out for us had a significant emphasis on the arts and children as young as four were taught basic principles of working with various materials and learning new techniques. We happened to visit the school on a day when the children were learning about watercolors. The arts teacher read a child-appropriate book about Monet and the kids learned how to properly apply water colors.
Tailoring the learning methods to a given class is yet another way that I think can produce great results. Instead of teaching the same curriculum the very same way year after year, teachers adapt their methods to best suit the children they have that year. For example, in a classroom that is very arts-centered, kids learning about letters may have a learning segment about painting letters as a way to learn the letter, the words that start with that letter and how to draw a letter. The kids have fun and learn all the while doing an activity that is fun for them.
Community involvement and social responsibility can be learned through doing. A particular school used a garden to teach kids that food grows and doesn’t just appear in their grocery mart. There, three and four year olds planted, grew and even harvested plants including stevia. In addition to learning about the farm-to-table concept, the kids learn about tastes and smells.
In the end, a fun, engaging environment with teachers who are passionate about their job working in naturally-lit, well-stocked classrooms with access to outdoors can provide a great learning environment for young learners. I never imagined that looking for a pre-school would be so time-consuming and I would see such a big difference from one school to another. I can only imagine what the college application process will be like. As they say, little kids, little problems, big kid, big problems.