Children are natural learners, so do they need preschool to be successful? Watch any toddler explore their environment and it is clear that children are wired to learn by doing. They actively explore everything put in front of them. Just this weekend, while visiting my parents and sister, I saw a perfect example of this natural exploration. My 16 month old nephew was busy exploring and found the game Jenga. He quickly figured out how to dump out all the blocks. After scattering the blocks onto the floor, he began exploring the box where the blocks were originally housed. He stuck his arm through the box and out through the hole in the front of the box. Wow! This was amazing to him. He took it off his arm, smiled, and then put his arm back through the hole. He smiled, waved it around, and took it off again. He looked at the box, smiled, and put his arm back through. He did this three or four more times. Looking curiously at the object in his hand, changing how he held it, showing it to those around him. It’s hard to know for sure what was going through his mind as he explored this new experience. He couldn’t tell us with words the connections he was making, but just by watching him, you could tell that he was learning. So if children are wired to learn, and naturally learn from exploring their environment, does preschool make a difference in student outcomes?
If you’re like me, you quickly answered that question with, “Of course, everyone knows that having Early Childhood Education is the number 1 factor in influencing long-term student achievement. There are numerous studies to prove this.” But recently, I heard a Podcast, The Tennessee Pre-K Debate: Spinach Vs. Easter Grass by Cory Turner, which made me rethink how I answer this question. In the story, Turner explains that teachers, parents and politicians have long wrestled with the question: How important is preschool? But a recent study by Vanderbilt University researcher, Dale Farran, changes how we answer it. The study shows that while preschool does have positive short term benefits for students, it takes a quality preschool program to have positive, long term effects on student outcome.
It is logical that the quality of the program will determine the effectiveness of the outcomes, and this study confirms that idea. So what are the key components that constitute a high-quality program? There is a great deal of research out there on high quality programs. First, preschool classrooms need rich curriculum that revolve around play. Children naturally learn through their play. However, I would argue that not all play is equal, and for play to be an effective way of teaching and learning, there needs to be focused attention given to the structure of the classroom, the interactions of teachers and students, and the effectiveness of teachers in helping children reflect on their experiences. Second, classrooms need to have a teacher-student ratio small enough for teachers build meaningful relationships with their students. Third, teachers must be highly qualified and have on-going training and time for collaboration. And lastly, to make the greatest impact, there needs to be a partnership between teachers and parents that allows for regular communication and engagement.
It is my sincere desire to continue to drive Hillside’s preschool programs toward quality. In doing so, my hope is to capitalize on children’s natural ability to learn through exploration, and to provide an environment rich with opportunity to explore, observe, and reflect on their experiences. I am confident Hillside’s wonderful preschool teachers are the foundational piece that can make this happen.
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