“I hope to dance ballet and trick-or-treat.”
“I hope to learn about cars and trucks, how things work, and letters and numbers.”
Ask a PreK-3 student what they hope to do this school year and you’ll get a range of answers like the ones above. Students are also interested in playing with babies, eating healthy and even learning about taxes. Ask the parent of a PreK-3 student what they hope their child will achieve and you will also get a variety of answers, from growing socially and academically to expressing themselves appropriately and learning to take turns. So, what do students in PreK-3 actually learn and why does it matter?
The Building Blocks of Learning: Social/Emotional Skills
PreK-3 teachers Kristen Cascio and Emily Richard say the majority of learning for the littlest Knights revolves around developing social/emotional skills. Social/emotional skills, such as waiting, sharing and learning to sit quietly on the carpet, are important for a student’s future learning capabilities. So important that the PreK-3 team spends considerable time helping students develop these building blocks of learning. Additional highlights of what PreK-3 students learn include:
The PreK-3 team uses the responsive classroom approach to teaching in much the same way that other teachers use it. Cascio says the team begins the year with the hopes and dreams component as they identify and understand the student’s and parent’s goals for preschool. Beginning the year with this understanding helps the teaching team personalize each student/family’s PreK-3 experience. The teachers also use the responsive classroom approach to classroom management. “We coach children through difficult situations and use everything as a teaching/learning opportunity,” says Cascio. Those teaching moments can come in the form of asking for additional food in the cafeteria, walking in a line with friends or learning to be aware of others. The little Knights even have their own Morning Meeting. Cascio says they start each day with a greeting, reading aloud and a group activity, which allows for collaboration, community building and life skill development. “During the greeting, students are instructed to make eye contact, greet friends by name with a happy, loud voice,” says Cascio. “We talk about how a happy voice makes our friends feel happy.”
At the same time that the three year old students are developing social/emotional skills, they are also developing academically. As they listen to stories and interact with friends, they expand their vocabulary. Students also learn to identify the letters in their name and the letters in the alphabet, which are the pre-reading skills needed to begin reading from a page. The lessons are flexible, adaptable and specifically designed to provide age-appropriate academic experiences.
Play = Learning
Cascio and Richard say play is a key to learning for three year olds. While adults may simply see a student picking up small objects with tongs or playing with Play Doh, the teachers say there is purpose to their play. For example, Cascio and Richard say that manipulating small objects and playing with clay helps students fine tune their fine motor skills in preparation for gripping a pencil for writing in later grades. Research backs up the importance of play.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (i.e., the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.” In a 2018 AAP report on The Power of Play, the authors conclude that “play is intrinsically motivated and leads to active engagement and joyful discovery,” and that “with our understanding of early brain development, we suggest that learning is better fueled by facilitating the child’s intrinsic motivation through play rather than extrinsic motivations, such as test scores.” The authors also suggest that “play provides a singular opportunity to build the executive functioning that underlies adaptive behaviors at home; improve language and math skills in school; build the safe, stable, and nurturing relationships that buffer against toxic stress; and build social–emotional resilience.”
The Episcopal PreK-3 classroom is designed to encourage student play and learning. The teachers say there is a focus on natural lighting and a comfortable feel so that students feel at ease and are not overstimulated. Centers are thoughtfully arranged so that noisy areas are not near the quieter locations. There are a variety of toys, games and activities to engage students. Because three year olds still benefit from a nap, there is designated quiet time during which students unfurl little mats and snuggle up for a rest after several hours of learning. Cascio and Richard also try to keep students to an expected routine so that they know what to expect and don’t experience too many interruptions.
Lessons for Life
Episcopal’s PreK-3 program ensures that students establish a strong foundation for the learning that comes as they progress through Lower School and transition to Middle and Upper School. The emphasis on social/emotional learning will continue as they progress. While the skills are different at each grade level, faculty and staff across all divisions are making these life lessons a focus for students. “We’re lucky to be in a school where we focus on this at every level,” says Cascio.
While Cascio and Richard focus considerable time on helping students learn school procedures and social/emotional skills, they are also helping the students begin their academic journey. The teachers hope that the well-rounded, age-appropriate experience helps students develop a true love of learning and school. “We want them to wake up loving to come here,” says Cascio. Fostering a love of learning and the social/emotional skills needed to be part of a community are a key component of the Episcopal experience. It’s how we are preparing tomorrow’s leaders every day.
Need help determining whether your child is ready for preschool? Click here to read tips from PreK-4 teacher Julie Mendes.