Friday, August 23, 2013

"We Don't Starve To Prepare For A Famine"

On Wednesday, I wrote about the most common non-education question people have had for me as an American when I've travelled outside the country. Perhaps the most common education-related question is some version of, "How do children from play-based preschools fare when they transition to traditional public schools?"

I also answer that question several times a year here at Woodland Park. People worry that their child, accustomed to the freedom to choose, to explore, to experiment, to play as her passions and interests guide her, will struggle when faced with the prospect of being told what to do while sitting at a desk, facing forward, taking tests, and filling out worksheets.

Of course, many of our families seek out "alternative schools," ones that offer a play-based, or inquiry-based, or project-based, or child-lead curriculum. We are lucky here in Seattle to be home to several such schools, including even a couple very good cooperative primary schools (here and here) where many of our former students matriculate. But the truth is that most families opt for our public schools.

One of the wonderful aspects of teaching in a cooperative school in which teachers form such close bonds with parents is that many of them stay in touch, sometimes for years after their child has moved on. Over my dozen years of sending children off to public schools, a couple of them have indeed struggled, but that seems pretty much par for the course; some children will always have problems with change whatever their educational background. In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, our alumni children thrive in kindergarten and beyond, often returning to tell me that "kindergarten is better than preschool," which is exactly as it ought to be.

One thing working in our favor is that, around here at least, the kindergarten teachers, for the most part, do understand that they are dealing with 5-year-olds: they are unimpressed by early reading, they know young children need to move their bodies, and they do what they can to make school ready for the kids, rather than expecting the kids to be ready for school. I have been told by a number of public school kindergarten teachers that, at most, they hope their incoming students can write their own name, count to 10, and cut with scissors. I've never met a child without learning disabilities who doesn't have that sorted out by five, and most are well beyond this.

But more to the point, the experience of a play-based curriculum, one that honors children as complete human beings, fully capable of embracing their own education in their own way, produces children who are highly flexible and adaptable, who have a joyful approach toward school, who know intrinsically what they need in order to learn, and understand, therefore, how they ought to be treated in order to make that happen.

One of the few instances of Woodland Park grads who "hated" kindergarten were a boy and girl who wound up in class together. They told me, "Mrs. B-- is mean. She's always bossing us around and yelling at us. She doesn't know how to be a teacher." It didn't surprise me when this teacher was fired. I'm sure there were other complaints about her because the bar for dismissing a tenured teacher is, as it should be, quite high, but I'm incredibly proud of these kids who would not put up with what they saw as abusive, incompetent behavior. I just saw the boy yesterday and he's now a second grader who told me he "likes school," but says he could "love it" with just a few alterations which he gladly detailed for me on his fingers. Children who are introduced to school through a play-based education know what real learning looks like, and, I would assert, tend to know that they have both a right and responsibility, when faced with things that doesn't serve this, to try to affect change. They view teachers not as superiors, but as their educational partners, which is, after all, the proper stance of a student toward his teacher. Good teachers know this and thankfully most of the kindergarten teachers I've met around here are good teachers.

All I have, of course, are anecdotes that come from my informal "study" of how our kids do in the wider world of education, but from where I sit, they certainly do no worse, and often better, than kids who have already been drilled-and-killed in "academic" preschools. I used to think it was my job to get kids ready for a less-than-ideal educational future, but no longer. Play is the best way to get ready for anything life has to offer.

Yesterday, reader Dawn sent me an email, which read, in part:

Many years ago, I was wondering how to prepare kindergarteners who were accustomed to Project Approach for the transition to public school. I fretted that we may be doing harm by not getting them "ready" for this very different style of school . . . Sydney Guerwitz Clemons wisely told me: "We don't starve to prepare for a famine, Dawn. We fatten them up to the best of our ability and hope they survive."

Exactly. I will be using this line the next time someone asks me the question, which will probably be tomorrow.

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Jeanne Zuech said...

Yes, yes, yes. Spot on, Tom!

The Many Thoughts of a Reader said...

I needed this today! Thanks. I always worry so much how my kiddos will survive next year at the big school!

Jodie @ Growing Book by Book said...

What a great post! I'm in search of a play based preschool in our area and sure hope I can find one!

Meryl said...

This is a great, insightful post!

Matt said...

Reminded me of Albert Einstein's quote: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Thanks for the article.

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