There are 22 children enrolled in the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool Pre-3 class. It might sound like a big group of 2-year-olds until you consider that as a cooperative we also have a minimum of 10 parent assistant teachers in the room at any given time. On top of that, this early in the year, we’re also hosting anywhere from 3-5 extra adults each day in the form of parents who aren’t yet ready to try the separation experiment.
At our fall parent orientation meeting I always say, “I expect parents to drop off their children when it is not their work day.” This exact phraseology was suggested to me by parent educator Jean Ward, who knows my own history as a Pre-3 parent, which didn’t actually include leaving our 2-year-old daughter alone until the final day of preschool. It’s an expectation, not a requirement. After all, this is a co-op. Parents choose co-ops because they have the desire and ability to stay with their kids at school. I understand that. I will never kick a parent out the door (although I will put them to work). In fact, I won’t even broach the subject unless I’m asked about it.
That said, learning to trust the world without mommy or daddy immediately at hand is one of the primary goals of the Pre-3 year.
Many of our 2-year-olds have already been thriving in the classroom without a parent for weeks now. In fact, by my count 13 of the children have made their separations without a tear – most have even seemed rather blasé about the whole thing. This doesn’t mean we’re through the woods. It’s not uncommon for a child to cruise along for a few weeks or even months, then to suddenly have a “relapse” of the dreaded separation anxiety, but so far so good.
Six of the kids have taken the separation experience a bit harder. So far, the parents of these children have elected the approach that I’ve found to be the “cleanest,” if sometimes emotionally wrenching: hand their child off to Teacher Tom or another parent, cheerfully kiss them goodbye, and go. There have been tears, of course, some of it a bit intense, but we’ve managed to work through it in 5-10 minutes in most cases, stand the kids on their own two feet (literally), and get to the business of school. A couple of the children have objected to my efforts to sooth them, but have found safe havens with other adults. This is one of great things about co-op – there are plenty of loving arms to crawl into. Again, this doesn’t mean we’re done with teary goodbyes, but it’s exciting that most of them have now successfully operated in the world without mom or dad at their side. That’s a pretty powerful thing to learn about yourself and the world.
This leaves us with only 3 families yet to take the plunge, which is nothing short of amazing. Often, by this time of the year there are still a half dozen families, or more, who are putting off the big day. I expect that day will come soon for these families, but if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. There’s enough pressures in being a parent, I would hate for this to be one of them. Believe me, they grow up and go out into the world on their own soon enough.
Yesterday was a teacher in-service day for the public schools, so we opened our doors to older siblings who had the day off, most of whom were Woodland Park alumni. As these impossibly tall versions of these former preschoolers came through the door, I was struck by their comparative sophistication and poise. There was an impressive worldliness about them that contrasted sharply with the toddling innocence of our 2-year-olds. Some of them had been bubbly, outgoing preschoolers, while others had been slower to warm. Some had always strode the world as if it belonged to them, while others had hung back to observe before making commitments.
Yesterday, however, they were all giants in every sense of the word. They crossed our tiny classroom in long-legged strides and rode our “unicycle merry-go-round” at speeds heretofore unattained. They engaged one another with conversation, courtesy, and discretion without any adult intervention whatsoever. They were independent human beings, models of where our 2-year-olds are headed.
Miriam brought her big brother Colin to class. She and her mother Latife were sitting inside one of our Playhut cubes surrounded by pumpkins. From the outside they were invisible to the rest of us. At one point Colin, an impressive “giant,” looked up from what he was doing and didn’t see his mommy. He systematically scanned the room. No mommy. In his eyes a mild panic showed as he began to slowly make his way around the class. He knew from experience to engage another adult and chose our parent educator Dawn Carlsen to help him in his hunt. They asked me if I knew where Latife was and I pointed her out. Relieved, Colin briefly checked in with her, then went back about his independent business.
At the end of the day as we sang our Halloween songs at Circle Time, I noticed Sylvia’s “giant” brother Zachary curled up on his own mommy's lap, while Sylvia sat halfway across the room. And “giant” Hattie had a couple of emotional moments that required mommy to dry her tears, while her little brother Elliott went cheerfully about his business.
Separation is a lifelong experiment, but so is connection. That’s the way it is, even in the land of giants.