As I sit here, preparing for a Teacher’s College conference, Seize the Moment: Rise to the Challenge of Pre-k, I can’t keep my mind from wandering to my years of teaching four year olds at a private nursery school and at P.S. 321, in Brooklyn, New York. At the time,so many years ago, I didn’t consciously think about the concepts of inquiry, investigation and exploration. I just assumed that those were the ways that four year olds learn. I didn’t, quite truthfully, have a philosophical or pedagogical background in pre-kindergarten instruction. I just seemed to understand and take for granted that four year olds needed many opportunites to explore, inquire, experiment and play, play, play. I was careful to set up centers that supported playful exploration. I brought in an old typewriter and this led to the children setting up an office.When we set up a fish tank in the science center, a fish study was born.
We made playdough each week. Not the cooked kind that could last for weeks. We made, instead, uncooked playdough so that the children’s hands could get right into the mixing bowl and feel what happened as each ingredient was added. We never used store-bought playdough. It was much more fun, and so much more learning took place, when we made our own mixture.
I have absolutely no memory of using any “program.” No Letter People. No Opening the World of Learning. No worksheets. I read stories. Lots and lots of stories. We sang songs. Many, many songs. Rhyming songs. Rhythmic songs. Clapping songs. ABC songs. We looked at our names. “Look, look, Johnny’s name starts just like mine!” “Yes, lets see if anyone else in the class has a name with Johnny and Jackie’s J.” We walked around the neighborhood and looked at familiar signs.
We wondered how many days it would be until Karen’s birthday. We counted the days on the calendar and each day noticed that it was one number less and getting closer to Karen’s special day.
All of our learning was playful, inquiry-based, and explorative. That’s what pre-k should be. Children should be able to lose themselves in the fun and challenge of a self-chosen activity. Who said that a four year old has a limited attention span? Offer a child materials that are totally engrossing and engaging and there will be a groan of “oh no!” when the end of the period is announced.
So now I’ll return to planning my workshops on “Inquiry and Investigation” and “Providing Big Opportunities for Little Scientists.” I hope that these forty minutes meetings with teachers will give me an opportunity to share my passion for creating pre-kindergarten classes that do not follow prescribed programs and unrealistic mandates but that do follow children’s natural curiosities and enthusiasms.