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Preschool: An Inside Look

Most parents hope preschool will teach the standard, rudimentary pre-academic skills, such as reciting the alphabet and recognizing shapes and colors. But that's just gravy. The true value of preschool resides in the unscheduled and unplanned lessons, social skills, and self-reliance that rise out of the controlled chaos and free-for-all that most good ones provide.

For a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of what a child really gets out of preschool, we trailed Domenic, a 3-year-old, through his half-day at the nondenominational Ridgewood Nursery School, which is on the ground floor of a church in Ridgewood, NJ. There are 16 kids in Domenic's class, and two teachers  -- Nancy Fanning, a 15-year veteran, and her assistant, Susan Bertolina. Domenic attends school five mornings a week, from 9 to 11:30. What he does, and learns, on a typical day:

8:55 ARRIVAL AND SEPARATION

Domenic's mom, Eleanor, fusses with his Yankees hat, then gives him a cuddle and a kiss before he wriggles away and sets off across the yard. He's greeted warmly at the school doors by two teachers. They help him retie one of his Blue's Clues sneakers, but he takes his jacket and hat off by himself, hanging them on his designated hook. Then he puts his lunch box on a shelf marked with his teacher's name, and trots into his classroom.

Already, Domenic is learning. To promote independence, parents are encouraged to let the kids walk the 20 or so feet from the sidewalk to the school door on their own. And when he hangs up his hat and coat by himself, Domenic is picking up lessons in responsibility and independence.

Though Domenic won't be reading for at least another year or two, he's acquired a skill  -- recognizing the name above his hook as his own  -- that gets him something tangible: a place to put his things. "When printed words serve a direct purpose, children become aware of the function and value of writing, which is a major step in the emergence of a desire to read," says Diane Trister Dodge, author of A Parent's Guide to Early Childhood Education.

9:00 MEET, GREET, NEGOTIATE

Domenic is wandering a bit, so Mrs. Fanning suggests he join some boys who are playing with blocks, trains, and plastic figures. Almost immediately, he gets into a tug-of-war with his otherwise good friend David over a small plastic character. Soon, though, he stops and picks up a different figure and, handing it to David, says, "But this is a choo-choo man. You need a choo-choo man." His diplomacy works: David accepts the offering and puts it on his train, leaving Domenic with just the piece he wanted. This negotiation and resolution is impressive  -- just the kind of social skill that you want your child to learn in preschool, especially given that Domenic could barely even talk when he entered Ridgewood last year. "He'd point to himself and say 'Unnh,' " recalls his mom. "He couldn't say his own name." His dad, Robert, remembers worrying that his teachers and classmates wouldn't be able to understand what Domenic needed.

"At home, parents and siblings respond to grunts and gestures, so a child's verbal skills don't become critical ones," says Sue Bredekamp, Ph.D., coeditor of Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs. "But for Domenic to get what he needed from his less accommodating peers, he had to use language and social skills. If you want the red crayon, you've got to speak up."

9:10 ATTENDANCE, CALENDAR, AND HELPERS

Mrs. Fanning calls the children to a carpeted corner of the room, where they all join hands to form a circle. A little boy named Andrew wants a place beside Domenic, so he waves his fingers in Domenic's face, a 3-year-old's sign for "I like you, and I want to sit next to you." Far from bothered, Domenic shows Andrew his shoes; they hug, then sit down together. With this simple act, says Bredekamp, the two boys are learning about friendship, personal space, and how to ease gracefully into a social setting.

At "circle time," as she does before every scheduled transition, Mrs. Fanning leads her charges in a poem: "Left to the window/Right to the door/Up to the ceiling/Down to the floor." Though ostensibly it's meant to teach left from right, what the rhyme really does is to focus attention and help build a sense of community in the classroom. "Colleges have chants and football cheers," says Dodge. "These poems and songs are fun and meaningful for preschoolers in much the same way."

They discuss the weather, the calendar, the children's various job assignments  -- such as line leader and snack helper  -- and yesterday's field trip to the supermarket, which yielded today's snack: fruit that the kids will make into a salad.

9:25 FREE PLAY

The room buzzes with activity, and Domenic is off and running to the baskets full of Lego toys. Some other boys build a huge "elevator for cars" with oversize cardboard blocks, which will, eventually, topple to the floor with a satisfying and resounding crash. Several of the girls congregate in the housekeeping corner, each on separate phone lines, making pretend plans for sleepovers ("Let's stay up till 12 o'clock!" "No, 100 o'clock!"). There are also kids playing with puzzles, books, and Play-Doh.

This free-choice time, a period that may look slightly disorganized to outsiders, actually provides these 3- to 5-year-olds with a sense of power. The choices they make are part of an ongoing effort to explore their own interests, express creativity, and, to some extent, develop the abilities and aptitudes that will help to define them in the future.

Domenic likes to build, and though he's pretty adept socially, he often chooses to work alone. As he snaps bricks together, constructing a helicopter, he murmurs softly to himself, saying things like, "See, it don't fit," until at last, "See, it fits." This self-talk is typical. "At this age, kids haven't internalized their thought processes. They need to think out loud," says Bredekamp. "So if there isn't a lot of talking in the classroom, there may not be a lot of thinking going on."

9:35 PROJECT TIME

When it's Domenic's turn to cut and wash the fruit individually with Mrs. Fanning, she asks about the helicopter he built.

Mrs. F.: Have you ever been in a helicopter, Domenic?

Domenic: No.

Mrs. F.: Didn't you go to HersheyPark with your family? Did they have a helicopter ride there?

Domenic (excited): Yeah! It went up and down, up and down. It was my favorite.

At every opportunity, Mrs. Fanning talks to her charges. "Children need extended one-on-one conversation in order to develop vocabulary and language skills," says Bredekamp. "Being around his peers motivates Domenic to talk  -- lets him use his language  -- but the vocabularies of other children his age aren't sufficient to help him build his own."

9:45 SCRIBBLE SCRABBLE

Domenic sits across the coloring table from David, his former antagonist. The two boys start scribbling.

Domenic: I'm going to make a green lake.

David: I'm going to make a basketball.

Domenic: I'm going to make Hot Wheels everywhere.

David: I'm going to make Hot Wheels in purple.

Domenic: I'm going to make Hot Wheels in purple.

David: Blue!

Domenic: Blue!

David: The same color!

The scribbling goes on for some time, and transforms into rain, green ice, blue ice, yellow ice, then finally dissolves into an appreciation of pure color: "Red-red-red-red-red." Meanwhile, the two boys' exuberant chatter is nonstop. "The process of creating art is enriched when there's someone else who's on your level to feed off of," says Sylvia Feinburg, Ed.D., a professor emerita of child development at Tufts University and author of Eliciting Children's Full Potential. Kids this age naturally free-associate, letting their scribbling wander with their thoughts, whereas most adults would feel the need to impose representation ("Look, you made the letter A!").

10:00 CLEANUP

If you ask his mom, she'll allow that Domenic rarely picks up his things at home, but at school  -- probably because of positive peer pressure  -- he and the other kids rise to their teacher's expectations and start putting away toys with great enthusiasm.

10:15 RHYME TIME

For 15 minutes each day, Mrs. Fanning schedules rhymes and songs like "Itsy Bitsy Spider," "Jack and Jill," "Hickory Dickory Dock," and a plethora of others that incorporate hand motions, full body movement, and the occasional rolling around on the floor while laughing hysterically. "Teachers and parents have always played these rhyming and singing games because kids enjoy them, but now we understand that they help build skills critical for reading," explains Bredekamp. Rhymes are a precursor to phonics exercises, as well as one of the most natural and powerful ways to feed the cognitive abilities necessary to sound out words.

10:30 OUTDOOR EXERCISE

Sometimes 3-year-olds need to use their outdoor voices, and Domenic and company do just that. There's nothing fancy about the small play yard at Ridgewood. It has two playhouses, a sand area, a slide, and a few climbing toys. Domenic plays by himself in the sandbox for a while, digging and dumping, then joins in a running-screaming-jumping game with a few of the other children, developing his large-muscle coordination and social skills while having a great time. The class comes in, red-faced and invigorated.

11:00 SNACKTIME

The children's treat is the fruit salad that they made themselves. Everyone digs in, without one request for sweets or cookies  -- yet another testament to positive peer pressure.

11:10 STORYTIME

Today's book is Wednesday Is Spaghetti Day, by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, an epic tale of Katrina, a cat who invites her feline friends for lunch. "Was Katrina home alone?" Mrs. Fanning asks the group. "No!" they yell. She continues reading, stopping frequently to analyze the pictures and to talk about the plot. "What does the cat have on her head? A lamp? What goes on top of a lamp?" "A lamp hat!" says Domenic. The kids are completely engrossed.

This kind of interactive reading is essential for young kids. "It's important to engage children in conversation about what they're hearing and seeing," says Dodge. It helps them learn to pay attention to detail, to look closely at the way the words and pictures work together, to connect one event with the next, to figure out what might come next, and to think a bit about character, motivation, and plot. But perhaps just as important, the kids are also finding out how to talk in a group and how to listen to each other with respect. And not only are they discovering how to express themselves in front of others, but they're also practicing and gaining the confidence to do so in a nonthreatening environment.

11:30 DISMISSAL

All is calm and orderly as some of the children line up to go home. Domenic, who's staying for lunch today, lies on the floor, propelling himself around in circles. No lesson: just the end of a long, full morning.

Carolyn Hoyt, a mother of two girls, is an award-winning writer who specializes in child development and education.

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