Tag Archives: preschool

Lily the Leopard Frog, RIP

Lily, July 2013 – October 8, 2014

leopard frog

Lily, beloved leopard frog of Sequoia Parents Nursery School, died quietly in the night last Wednesday. Lily was born at a classroom supply house and delivered to what would be her life-long home by the U.S. Mail. She led a full life, from tadpole to adult frog, delighting and educating students and their parents. Lily was a generous frog, always willing to share what she knew about metamorphosis, and inviting kids to observe her life in (and out of) the water. Lily loved crickets!

Even when lily grew legs and the ability to jump great distances, she chose to stay in her aquarium, showing her devotion to her preschool family. Lily is survived by a tadpole named Wonder Fred, a tarantula named Bob, a stick-bug named Groot, and 50 preschoolers who have learned a bit more about life.

Death is a hard topic for any of us, but especially for young children–it is a great challenge for them to grasp the meaning of the end of a relationship. Often, adults do not help, attempting to neutralize painful news by using inappropriate language: “Lily’s gone away“; “We’ve lost her”; or “Lily has gone to sleep“. All we are doing in such a situation is delaying the pain of realization (and possibly making a child afraid to sleep or wander too far from parents … “what if they lose me too?!”). There is no way to sugar coat the finality of death, and if we don’t do our best to address it clearly in the moment, we will only leave children confused as they struggle to understand what’s happened.

The death of a pet can be hard, but of course it’s nothing compared to the loss of a family member or friend. Our task is not to instill fear about the future, but to talk about death in plain and literal ways, making every effort to answer a child’s current questions simply. We don’t need to say more than we know, or to answer questions that kids aren’t asking, but we should choose language that helps them understand the truth of the situation. “Lily’s body has stopped working and we don’t get to play with her any more.”

One reason we speak about death in euphemisms is that we’re afraid to make our children sad: “Maybe if we use nicer language it won’t hurt so much.” Don’t be fooled. It will hurt a lot more when kids get the message that grief and other big emotions are somehow not allowed. That never makes grief go away, but adds a burden to never show it. Allow these feelings, and name them so that children know the feelings are normal: “We’re so sad that she died.” To do otherwise makes more confusion, because death is sad and hard and we can’t rush children (or adults for that matter) to feel differently about it.

These are the reasons we invite animals into our classrooms. Because even though it is sad when they die, we are in the business of teaching children about life, and not only the happy parts.

 

This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

Long Lasting Lessons

Many of the first things we learned about childhood and parenting are lessons that still have meaning for us today, as we parent our near-adult children. Sure, in the beginning we learned things about breastfeeding and diapers and how to juggle energetic and very needy kids (sometimes we really juggled them, right dads? But that’s another story). Some of these skills we may hope never to use again. (Really. No more diapers. Thank you.) But we also learned about what goes into making people out of these little creatures …. We learned about the stages of development and how a strong thread runs through the life of a child, a thread of love that we offer and never impose, a thread of care and assistance that we never force, but is always at the ready.

We learned that children change as they grow, and we are seeing changes today that we learned about 18 years ago, changes that we anticipated and prepared for, and in some ways orchestrated, thanks to the things we learned in our first parent ed classes.

When a young parent attends a mandatory evening of a parent education, and listens to the experts talk, what are they learning? It’s tempting to view such required events as wasted time. “How important is it to become an expert on this stage in my child’s life anyway?”, we might think. “I don’t need anyone to tell me how to parent my kids, and besides I’ve got fifteen more years of education (and meetings) to go! Shouldn’t I be saving up for the teenage years?”

But at these meetings, especially the early ones, we’re not just learning how to parent preschoolers. We are learning how to parent. And many of the lessons are for life. It’s not just because the early childhood experts get to teach you first, but because they understand the foundational aspect of what we offer our kids at this age.

Some of the lessons that last: how to talk to your kids so they will listen; positive discipline; setting limits; developmental milestones; conflict resolution; temperament; screen time; sibling rivalry; healthy parenting partnerships; and, how the brain grows and works.

Susan Stone Belton, parent coach and early childhood development specialist at Parents Place, spoke at one such mandatory parent education meeting last night. As she delivered her list of best practices to the room of preschool parents, she cautioned against thinking that this was all about preschool: “I would give the same talk to parents of 8th graders!”

We can vouch for that, and add that much of what we learned back in the day still means a lot to us as we watch our almost 18-year-old son finish high school and face the future. That is we still see him as a growing person who needs us (in a different way than he did when he was 4, to be sure) and who we love, as much as we can. But the really great thing is that we are also seeing the man that we laid the foundation for 15 years ago, thanks to the people who taught us what they know about how people grow.

 

This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

Legislating early childhood education: good intentions

A little political reflection from a parent and preschool director.

Two senate bills that will affect early childhood education are in the news these days. These bills include some good innovation, but also threaten to weaken the good that already exists for our youngest students. SB 837 and SB 1123 each lower the age of publicly-funded education, and are good in many ways, yet could chip away at the strength of existing preschools and the expertise and community experience they provide.

I’d like to look at this from four perspectives: early childhood education, parenting, elementary education, and just me.

From the standpoint of an early childhood educator, the bills are good. They advocate for early childhood education. They take into account all the data showing that early childhood education raises better learners and stronger members of the community. Children who participate in preschools do better in the long term, academically and socially. It is the stuff educators have been saying and defending for years. The state of California has a good track record in this regard. In the 1950s the state began to establish a network of parent education cooperative schools (with education standards and curriculum guidelines) which were funded through public adult education schools. Many of these (such as those in the Sequoia Union high School District, and Santa Clara Unified) are still in operation, even though public funding has been recently eliminated. These bills add to the state’s long support of the need for early childhood education.

From the standpoint of parents, these bills are good. The intent of the legislature is to provide a stable and comprehensive early-learning and educational support system for children from birth to five years of age that promotes access to safe, high-quality, part-day and full-day services that support the development of the whole child, especially for those children who need it most… this means free preschool for 3 and 4 year olds. What can be better than that for parents?

From the standpoint of elementary schools, they might be good. If funding is provided, schools will be able to develop environments, add equipment, and plan for other upgrades to prepare for incoming preschoolers. Curriculum will be designed, staff will get special training, and the transition between preschool and elementary curricula could be seamless.

I recognize the good intentions behind the bills, and the potential good if they are implemented. However, as a preschool director, parent, and member of the community, I wonder what will happen to all the wonderful existing preschools in our neighborhoods?

The government might spend millions building the new system from the ground up … when the infrastructure to support young children at the beginning of their school careers already exists around the corner, down the street, in the neighborhood preschool. Could it be possible to legislate preschool for all without ignoring the resources that already exist? Existing, well-established, quality programs should be taken full advantage of: it’s hard to imagine, even at the end of what would likely be a difficult transition, that the level of specialized expertise available in established preschools can be replicated any time soon.

The developmental needs (social, physical, cognitive, spiritual, emotional) of 3 and even 4 year olds are very different than those of elementary school children. They need to be in environments designed to meet these needs. Environment includes classroom, materials, play yard, curriculum, and staff. Staff must have strong backgrounds in age-appropriate child development. These schools must also attend to the unique needs of parents at the beginning of their journey: they must be able to support families, involve parents in their child’s education, teach parenting skills, and work to bridge the home/school gap.

High quality programs which meet these needs already exist, but their existence will inevitably be threatened by low-quality, free alternatives. If funding were given to existing preschools, more children from lower-income families would benefit from the enrichment which leads to elementary school success.

What you can learn from reading the bills is that legislators are looking into what they call a mixed delivery system, which means that all kinds of infrastructure can be a part of delivering on the promise of preschool for all. This could mean that the state could start with existing infrastructure, endorsing and funding your local preschools. You can read about it in the literature, it’s a bullet point somewhere in the mix, but I fear that it might be practically lost in the rush to turn funding into an excuse to develop new programs at the expense of what already exists. I think using existing schools should be the primary way early childhood legislation is implemented. I say, start with what is already in place, get 3 and 4 year olds into existing preschools, and let elementary schools stick to what they do well—they have enough on their plate.

Many preschools are already suffering since Transitional Kindergarten is luring kids of a certain age away from Pre K classes. Public schools will take on more and more students (of earlier and earlier ages—ages outside of their training and expertise) while local preschools lose more and more students. I say fund existing preschools that meet key criteria and make preschool affordable for all who choose it. Just let’s keep our wonderful preschools and their well-trained early childhood educators in business … they already exist … for the good of every preschooler.

The Preschool’s Secret Weapon

There is a prejudice about learning that preschool teachers face, especially in our hard-driving academic culture.

This prejudice is the belief that an environment designed around play and exploration is not academically stimulating enough to prepare children for later school success. Couple this belief with the slippery slope of always wanting to start “preparing” our children at earlier and earlier ages so that they will never be behind, so that they will always be ahead of the game, and preschools come under a great deal of pressure to introduce more and more conventional academics.

But the secret weapon of the preschool is that early childhood education is a holistic deal—learning happens in a social/emotional/intellectual landscape. Young children learn (find meaning) through their senses, relationships, perceptions, and emotions. There is no way at this age to isolate an academic subject from this contextual field and present it as symbols on a piece of paper (as is common in later education).

Take language: when many children first encounter preschool at around age two, they have a vocabulary of roughly 350 words. As they enter the ‘school’ world, they find themselves in new environments, they face new problems, and they experience a sudden increase in the number of relationships, all of which leads to an explosion of language. By the time this two-year old reaches 1st grade, they will have multiplied their vocabulary by 4 or 5 times.

But it makes no sense to say that academics don’t start until elementary school, or that preschools don’t focus on cognitive development. The foundations of later cognitive success are laid in the holistic learning environment of the preschool. In fact some of a person’s most important cognitive growth is happening during these early years. Language itself is the basis for communication, and communication is the basis for learning. Communication skills are first learned in relationships, because relationships require young children to make sense of competing agendas, and language is the essential skill here, because the way that children negotiate emotional and social complexity is with words. Language won’t be mastered unless it is first mastered in the context of developing relationships and social interaction, which are the first and best curricula of the preschool classroom.

Even solo fantasy play is critical to the development of these social/emotional/intellectual skills … because it provides the social and relational contexts denied to a child by reality, enabling them to practice at things that are not possible in the ‘real world’. Where else, after all, can a child practice being a hero, a warrior, part of the royal court, or that most challenging role … a parent. In fantasy play, the child is learning the basic languages (social, emotional, and yes, academic) of roles they will not be qualified to fill for decades. Talk about being ahead of the game!

So, as the debate on academics continues, look on the giant playroom of the preschool as a laboratory for the scientific advancement of foundational cognitive skills. You can see the beginning of a great education here. You just need to know what to look for.

 

This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog

An Education

Recently a young girl of 4 1/2 sat on her own in a corner of the preschool room. She had a little dish and little tongs and she was feeding little plastic counting bears to a great big stuffed animal. She was totally focused. She was gentle, patting and cooing to the dog. She whispered to her charge inaudibly. She took her time.

Was this big stuffed dog (easily as big as the girl) a proxy for a pet at home? Or was the floppy toy reminding her of a sibling, and was she playing parent or big sister? Was the dog a ‘friend’ who needed love? Or was it a stand in for herself? What relationship (friendship or family) or what needs (loneliness, hunger, or security) were being worked out? Are these questions surprising?

For a child, play is not separate from life. Play like this is a kind of theater, where a child rehearses … everything. And for a child, everything is relational: children learn who–and how lovable–they are from those they relate to; and they learn about the relative trustworthiness and goodness of the world from those they interact with. Since childhood can be fraught with uncertainty, often children work out their own responses to relational anxieties through play.

Who knew that plastic bears, tongs, and a stuffed animal could engage a child’s attention exclusively for long periods of time? And who knew that spontaneous dramatic play could be so rich and meaningful? In fact, the meaning of this brief vignette goes beyond the sweet implications of a young child working out compassion, or whatever.

When we think about the skills our kids will need to be successful, it’s normal to want to be able to check off requirements. In fact we usually want to check them off early (so they will never be behind!). For example, we want the kids in our charge to learn writing, spelling, and language– skills that get a disproportionate level of attention from new parents who feel an intense responsibility to give their child every academic advantage. So we look at this kind of quiet play with a touch of anxiety … shouldn’t we be preparing her for the challenges of Kindergarten? Shouldn’t we be spending more time laying a foundation for later language requirements?

But what if she was laying that foundation already … with no intervention from a teacher or a parent?

Practically speaking, this little one was encompassing a well-rounded preschool curriculum, one perfectly suited to her age. She was manipulating small toys using a tool, and working her fine motor skills, which are the essential precursor skills to writing (using tongs to accomplish a concrete task, this girl was getting ready to hold a pencil to accomplish something more abstract, using symbols to represent language). She was verbalizing her thoughts to another, working out the communication of feelings in a low pressure environment (stuffed animals are known to be very good conversation partners). She was building relational confidence. And all of this was happening in the context of a drama largely hidden to the observer. What thoughts or feelings drove the girl to minister to this creature in this way? It doesn’t matter. They were important enough to require special attention, and that in turn became an occasion for her to accidentally practice a number of really useful skills.

Good preschool curriculum should always allow for a child to choose, as often as they like, their own self-directed play. In this context, children are learning how to learn. Such play always—always—encompasses a rich and multi-layered assortment of learning opportunities. How is this possible? Because a child will call on all their skills, even new and unrefined skills, to accomplish the tasks that they care about. This is where the best learning happens.

 

This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog

Why We Love Co-ops

We love the cooperative preschools we’ve been a part of—from the first, where Dave and 2 year-old Zoe played and learned together, to the schools where Anghelika works today, 18 years later. Co-ops are preschools where parents participate in their child’s education and share in the running of things. While there are greater commitments in co-ops than in drop-off schools, we believe it’s a gift for parents to be able to be a part of this great transition, as kids are just beginning to socialize and take on greater and greater tasks in a progressively more structured setting. The benefits of partnering with trained educators and other parents during this season are huge: as children explore, dig into things that interest them, and work things out technically, socially, physically, in their own way and in their own time, we get to learn about how they learn. Cooperative preschools encourage parents while teaching loads of skills in the context of child-directed, play-based learning while providing a supportive environment for the parenting journey, as kids become more and more independent. Awesome right?

But cooperative preschools in the Bay Area seem to be suffering. They struggle with low enrollment, a shrinking pool of teachers willing to work alongside of parents, and a loss of clout among new moms and dads. Why the loss of clout? Co-ops have a reputation for being a lot of work, and possibly also for being a bit old-school, with their earthy, slow-paced, child-directed environment that appears to favor stay-at-home parents. How could such a thing fit into our modern, double-income, high-pressure, prepare-your-child-for-a-career-in-high-tech-Stanford-here-we-come culture? Of course, your child is headed for great things, and you want them to be prepared. No arguments there. But we’d argue that parents should not distance themselves from their child’s education so early, or so suddenly. The argument isn’t about whether or not we need a better education for our kids to help them compete in a rapidly changing economic culture—it’s merely about the best way to begin.

In an any ideal preschool environment, the guiding principles are drawn from the natural curiosities and passions of the children. Young kids grow at a natural, organic pace, and do not need to be told to be inquisitive, interested explorers. Besides providing a varied and stimulating environment for these natural-born scientists and adventurers, what co-ops do in addition is leverage this transition from home to school by engaging parents for the benefit of all. Parents know their children best, teachers know what’s next in development and how little minds work, and the children … benefit from a gradual hand-off from a life at home to a life in community.

For parents, the benefits to be gained by investing in these early years of school outweigh the work involved at co-ops—which is still considerably less work than being alone with your child at home. Busy parents who choose co-ops will have a slower transition to complete independence, but gain so much more in the form of community support, insights into their child’s development, and opportunities for shared moments that will never be repeated in their parenting careers.

What do you think? What are you arguments for or against parents remaining involved in their kid’s education? How long should that involvement last? When is the best time to leave the education to the pros?

[This post originally appeared on The Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

Parents In The Classroom

A teaching moment?

A teaching moment?

We think cooperative classrooms are the ideal. In co-opps, Parents participate in their child’s early education, observe their children in early social settings, and learn from people who’ve been working with children for years. In the cooperative setting, parents take on a unique role, one that might not occur to them at home. They have to follow the rules.

At home parents make the rules, and children follow the rules. Our kids may never get to see us as rule followers.

But when parents participate in their child’s early education, they follow the teacher and the plan and model the behaviors that are expected in the classroom – parents sit on chairs, not tables; sit quietly at circle time and pay attention to the teacher; eat their snacks at the table; and ride trikes with their shoes on!

Parents do these things because they happen to be what we ask our children to do (and we have a measure of grace for children who aren’t ready to be constrained … but parents are still expected to model good rule-following!). There may be different rules in your learning space–the key is consistency: we tell our parents, “If you can sit on a table and text with your friends, we aren’t able to tell children that they can’t sit on tables and have their electronic toy permanently in front of them.

Utility and Experience

In class yesterday, Anghelika introduced rhythm sticks to a group of five-year-olds. Rhythm sticks are foot-long wooden sticks for knocking together–these simple toys/tools are fun and noisy, so are an easy sell to kids. But they also offer a number of covert benefits for a growing mind. With some care on the part of the teacher, kids can smack away while “accidentally” learning rhythm and math, following a leader, and working together.

In the midst of the knocking and counting, Anghelika noticed a single student holding her sticks in the middle, while the majority held them by the ends. We thought about this and it occurred to us that for most of the kids, there was an understanding that the stick could be a tool or instrument. Tools and instruments are for doing something with, for making music: you hold tools by their ends. For this student, however, the stick was for holding, not so much using. The thing had not yet become for her a utilitarian object: she had a stick to hold, and holding means grabbing it in the middle. From her perspective, we imagine, holding on the end is a nuisance: it requires more strength, balance, and what’s the point anyways? She had something in her hand; it felt good!

Sure, this is on the one hand a simple opportunity to introduce the idea of utility to students along with different ways of interaction. She was open to instruction that day, and her particular relationship to the object was no cause for concern. She would have gotten it, no problem.

On the contrary, there is enough emphasis on utility in our education system … what’s wrong with relating to an object for the way it feels in your hand? We take notice of this outlier for the uniqueness of her interaction. Sure, there’s an opportunity to teach her about the tool and it’s usefulness, but there is also an opportunity for us to learn something about her perspective and what is important to her in the moment. Both are true, and rich opportunities for growth, in her, and in our community perspective.

The wrong approach to the situation would be to correct her grip and tell her the “right” way to hold a stick, to point out “how the other children are doing it”, and call attention to some failure on her part to align with the crowd. The right way would be to acknowledge and respect her way for what it is, letting her speak to her own reasons why. Then, together, teacher and student can work out the best way to hold a stick for different uses.

Admissions Anxiety

It’s that time of year—when students anxiously await word from the prestigious schools they’ve applied to ….

This week, a mother came into the preschool in tears. Her child had just been interviewed for admission into kindergarten. She sat with an administrator who listed all of the ways that her son failed to measure up to the standards of this great school. Standards that included writing his name, knowing the alphabet, knowing his home phone number. This is half-way through his first year of preschool. “It takes a lot to make me cry,” she tells us.

Of course, from the school’s perspective, this is all easily explained, and a parent would be foolish not to see the writing on the wall. If my child is not prepared for kindergarten, they will be behind from the beginning. Other children, ahead of the curve, will get more attention and affirmation from teachers and my child will be slowly left behind. The downward spiral starts now: my child is doomed. Might as well get used to being at the bottom of the heap.

This mother (who is not given to these kinds of extremes, thankfully) said they never asked what her child’s interests are. They might have learned that he’s been to sixteen of California’s missions, and could give a history lesson. They didn’t learn how well he does sitting attentively in circle-time, and if they had asked they might have realized that while he does not have certain facts in hand, he is ready and eager to learn.

It gives us hope to hear that mom was asked by an administrator at another school (she has applied to seven) to share three things that make her son special. That’s more like it.