by Sally Byrnes Swiatek
A Little Patch of Earth Preschool is a new progressive early-childhood program for children ages 2 to 5 in the Santa Clarita Valley. Throughout my journey of making A Little Patch of Earth a reality, I had been warned by my valued colleagues, to avoid calling my program “progressive”. As if the “P” word was dirty and had to be disguised by other, more tolerable phrases, such as “child-centered” or “holistic.”
Progressive education is defined as “favoring or promoting change”. In this context it simply means that the approach to kindergarten readiness is slightly different from a traditional preschool. While children at ALPoE still engage in activities to support their social, emotional, cognitive, language, and motor development, how they engage in these activities is what might be considered by some, as progressive.
ALPoE believes that childhood is a sacred time on the spectrum of our human development. As such, we support these capable and competent thinkers with a very intentional practice known as emergent curriculum. This means that teachers arrange a rich and diverse learning environment which is constantly changing, based on the children’s emerging interests, ideas and questions. Through thoughtful dialogue and observation, teachers facilitate learning which is meaningful and relevant to their individual development. Emergent education is more child directed as opposed to traditional programming which might be more teacher directed.
ALPoE might not present the “skill of the week” using a theme or a unit to introduce, for example, a specific letter, shape or color, because these lessons might not be relevant to their development at that particular time. However, the environment will be enriched with a multitude of materials and activities which still support the example of letter, shape or color recognition, but in a context which will enable a child to begin establishing his/her own learning styles. This is offered to them through a variety of learning spaces, both indoor and out, and through long periods of uninterrupted time for them to extend their thinking. The teacher is seen more as a “facilitator” whose objective is to support the multiple ways children make meaning from their experiences. Through this thoughtful practice of dialogue and documentation between the teachers and children, the narrative of each child’s unique development is revealed.
Another practice which makes ALPoE different from other traditional preschools, is how we integrate natural living spaces in our learning environment. In order for children to know the power of their physical bodies, and to experience the changing wonders of our earth and other living things, they must first be given the opportunity to play freely in the out of doors. Our 8 garden beds, tree’s, and farm animals (such as our tea-cup pig, chickens, rabbit and tortoises) help children see our environment as constantly changing and dependent on our thoughtful care. The two acres of green, open space, under a canopy of large oak tree’s provides room for children to move their bodies and to take measured physical risks, which is important to their whole development.
Early childhood education has grown to become a hotly debated topic among administrators and politicians who see preschool as a time to capitalize solely on academic success. Although preschool does lead to later school success, it does not happen by treating preschoolers as smaller versions of grade-schoolers. Preschool is a unique time on the developmental spectrum; deserving of special rights and privileges.
It is a time to:
- Empower and inspire children to make important social and emotional growth through play and co-active learning.
- Help children challenge their physical bodies by giving them valuable time and space to move, run, climb, and to support their autonomy.
- Stimulate cognitive development by presenting broad learning opportunities for children to construct knowledge that is meaningful to them.
- Introduce the principles of social responsibility and democracy by practicing reverence for their shared community.
Preschool is NOT a time for children to:
- Perform on cue through drills
- Produce standardized work which is compared to their peers
- Be socialized to the status-quo.
- To be kept in the boundaries of rigid schedules, small classrooms, and limited “recess” time.
Progressive education is not an “alternative” thought. The difference in philosophy is that one sees children as empty vessels waiting to be filled with information someone else dictates is relevant. The other sees children already possessing creative ideas and complex interests, ready for expression. When we trust children to explore their own ideas and interest, their learning is not only relevant to their own development, but it lays an important educational foundation for the many years of formal education that will follow.
Children see the world through different eyes. Too often preschools prematurely launch children from this beautiful (and short-lived) world of wonder, excitement and unbridled curiosity and into a world of standards and assessments and performance. Kindergarten readiness means different things to different people. To me, it means preserving the most sacred part of our human development….Childhood, and letting the rest naturally follow.
“Every Stage of development is complete in itself. The 3 year old is not an incomplete 5 year old. The child is not an incomplete adult. Never are we simply on our way! Always we have arrived!
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