Visiting Kindergarten

foodforthoughtYesterday I visited my friend Carrie’s classroom. Carrie co-teaches one of the kindergarten classes at a private school in center city. I was struck by some things I saw, and wanted to share them.

First off, the kids. They were so smart, and thoughtful, and engaged, and self-regulated! When I came into the classroom, they were all sitting around tables working on a writing/coloring project, sharing markers, laughing and chatting. No one was arguing or moping or getting up to do other things. They were all engaged and on-task, and totally relaxed and happy. Later, when it was free play time, I saw small groups of children moving around the room, cooperating impressively, listening to each other and solving problems, giving each other appropriate space. When the teachers rang the bell to announce clean-up time, they all stopped what they were doing to listen and then shifted tasks easily.

Coming most recently from a classroom of 2’s and 3’s, this pretty much knocked me over. But of course, it wasn’t just the difference in age that made the difference in behavior—it came from the teachers. I saw throughout the morning how the teachers continually offered the children respect, listening to them when they had something to say, helping them when they asked for help, giving them space when they needed it, politely asking for attention when it was important, speaking to them like real people. Which allowed the children, of course, to treat each other that way. Sometimes culture is bottom-up, and sometimes it’s top-down. These teachers used their position of authority to set such a great tone and set of expectations, that the children’s behavior was raised to a level they wouldn’t (necessarily) have accomplished on their own.

I was also impressed with the important role of play in their classroom. It wasn’t just that they planned activities that were playful (though they did do that)—it was that there was significant time for free play in their day. Some children worked together to build impressive block structures; some children made art together; a lot of the children banded together in a huge restaurant-themed dramatic play scenario. The class is embarking on a long-term project about restaurants (chosen by the children) in which they are not only learning how to cook and share food, but to write menus and calculate change, and to think about the roles people take on in a restaurant. I mentioned to Carrie that when I visited the “restaurant” three different waiters tried to take my order, and things got confused. “Oh,” she said, “that’s because we just started talking yesterday about how different people have to do different jobs to make everything work. Yesterday no one wanted to be the customer so things fell apart, but now we’re figuring out how all the jobs have to happen for the restaurant to work.” In the coming weeks they’ll take field trips to restaurants to see how things work there, and bring those insights back to the classroom. What a great way to approach social studies (as well as math and literacy and science) through play.

I was blown away by the complexity of the play going on. Kids spontaneously split up into various roles without needing to negotiate. I saw waiters moving between tables, passing orders to the chefs who would prepare appropriate food. “Would you like to see the dessert menu?” “Can I have the check please?” “Can I get you something to drink?” And the creative thinking! I was trying to throw them curve balls by asking about specials, spilling my soup, disputing my bill, but those kids parried my every thrust. They were really expert players, cooperating and listening and adjusting and paying attention. I won’t go into all the reasons that this kind of play is great for cognitive and socio-emotional development, but the list is LONG.

I was also impressed with the way the children threw themselves into learning. They were excited to read, to write, to do math… When the teacher asked for volunteers to read things at circle time, every hand shot up. I noticed children using math spontaneously in their play (“I’ve only used [pauses to count] 7 colors in my drawing, so I have [pausing to think] 5 more to go”). During a writing activity, I saw a child get up from her seat and walk to another child’s cubby so she could look at his name to spell it correctly; another child wanted to write “I like books,” and remembered that “like” was one of the words in the question-of-the-day at circle time earlier and went to look at how it was spelled, all without prompting. Again, in comparison to 2 year olds, this stuff was astounding—but is no less special for happening with kindergarteners.

Finally, a thing that impressed me was the children’s ability to empathize and take others’ perspectives. Specifically, the teachers told the children that one child would not be coming back to their class for the rest of the year. When they asked the children to think about how that child might feel if they ran into him at the park, they gave surprisingly understanding answers (“Sad, because he’ll know he doesn’t get to come to school with us anymore”; “Confused, because he might forget for a minute that he’s not in our class now”; “Happy, because he’ll see his friends again”; “Worried, because he might not know if we’re still friends with him”). When the teachers asked the children to brainstorm things they could put in a goodbye book for the child, they went far beyond nice things to say, or things that they would want to hear themselves—they thought specifically about their memories of the child, and talked about his interests and likes, and memories they had of doing fun things with him that he might want to remember. Again, I’m sure this ability is partly a function of being older than the children I’m used to, but it also is evidence of a school and classroom culture that values empathy and perspective-taking.

Overall, I had a blast in their classroom. But the thought that struck me afterwards was that this is what it looks like if you take the curriculum I’m used to in preschool and you keep doing it for three more years. It was the same kind of emergent, project-based, play-centered curriculum, with the same kind of focus on social and emotional skills. And what do kindergarteners working in this kind of program look like? Exactly like the kind of kids I want 6 year olds to be. That felt pretty good to see.

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