With care and concentration, 4-year-old Lucas Wierzbicki threaded a string through the holes bordering a pink paper heart.
“I’m doing real good,” Lucas boasted quietly.
“You’re going to town, buddy!” teacher’s aide Becky Dye encouraged him.
Lucas and his preschool classmates were making colorful Valentine’s Day gifts. But the delicate task also enhanced his fine-motor skills and his comprehension of visual patterns, precursors to the reading and writing he’ll be expected to do before long.
This is learning, preschool-style. Here at the Kenowa Hills Early Childhood Center, students absorb academic and social skills cleverly disguised as LEGOS and sing-alongs. It’s all part of preparation for school in 2016, when preschoolers are doing things kindergartners used to do in order to be ready for kindergarten.
These 3- and 4-year-olds also learn vital soft skills, such as problem-solving, risk-taking and cooperating with other children, said Daniel Brant, director of early childhood and special education for the district. Research shows students with quality early education do better in school and college, Brant says.
But make no mistake, all of these skills are interwoven with fun. After all, these are children: stacks of building blocks beware.
“We understand children have to learn through play,” said Brant, who oversees a range of programs for about 200 of them. “Kids are inquisitive. They want to know about their environment. We kind of envision that play is their work.”
In the Zone
Maintaining this fine balance of play and work means pushing children a little above where they are but not frustrating them. In education-ese, this is known as the zone of proximal development – or as Brant calls it, “keeping kids in a state of interested learning.”
That philosophy undergirds all teaching at the Early Childhood Center, which four years ago consolidated all Kenowa Hills preschools under one roof. They include the Community Education Preschool, Special Education Preschool, the Bright Beginnings program for infants and toddlers, the state-funded Great Start Readiness Preschool and a before- and after-school day care.
The teaching approach is outlined in a curriculum of 50 goals and objectives for the children’s development, from “shares and respects the rights of others” to “makes believe with objects” and “enjoys and values reading.”
That last is a big one for Lucas, says his mother, Berenice Wierzbicki. She said he loves the class reading time with his teacher, “Miss Tara” Daetwiler.
“Every day he wants to read like five books,” his mother said. “At preschool, it’s fun to read. It’s an experience.”
This year, she’s seen him grow out of shyness, learn to share, use full sentences and take delight in separating Skittles by color. Lucas is getting better prepared for kindergarten by being here three mornings a week than if he was home all day with her, she said.
“The teachers here, I feel, have a gift that I couldn’t (provide) as a parent,” said Berenice, whose third-grade daughter Isabella also went here. “He’s learned so many things.”
Preschool can help children relate schoolwork to their home environment, teachers said. For instance, children in a Great Start Readiness room played with a tub of water using egg cartons, milk jugs and ladles.
Liam Santee poured a tube of water through a perforated ball and said it was like a thermometer going from warm to cool.
“When kids go home and use these objects, it helps them articulate what they did” at school, Brant said.
Another child built a LEGO tower, saw it collapse then rebuilt it on the floor. That showed him failure is part of success, and that he could fix it and move forward, Brant said. “We want them to learn it’s OK to take a risk.”
Learning such lessons early are key to children’s success later on, which is why he thinks the state should provide “fully funded preschool for all.” His families pay $750 to $960 a year for Community Education Preschool.
Ashley Anderson said preschool gave a big boost to her daughter Lauren for kindergarten, and is doing the same for 4-year-old Will. He loves learning about dinosaurs, knows his alphabet and can count well beyond 10.
“The car ride home is nonstop talking about the stuff he’s learned,” Anderson said. “Seeing that confidence grow through the year is one of the coolest things.”