I was just visiting with a friend of mine, Molly King, a new employee at our local quality care enhancement provider here in Huntsville, AL. She was sharing a few ideas with me about how important it is to "relate to the level" of our students and not instruct like the elementary school teacher. Wow, it was a "light bulb", "what a great idea" moment.
Here are a few thoughts from that conversation:
1) Whenever we think "teaching" and "learning" on the preschool level, it should always be integrated into real life interaction and play. Please no flashcards or black master worksheets! Those may make teaching easy for you but they are not an effective way to approach true learning with preschool children.
2) All over the Internet is the latest, "greatest" fad - teach your baby to read. Expecting an infant to be able to do more than "parrot" back to you is ridiculous for this reason: it ignores the developmental spectrum through which children must travel before they are ready for a complex mental process like conventional reading. Reading, after all, is not word recognition, although that might be a part of it. Reading is gaining meaning from text.
Would you take a baby who had never been near the water and throw it in the 6 foot deep end of the pool? Of course not! That's what you do when you throw a baby into "reading" without the foundational concepts so critical and integral to becoming a conventional reader.
3) Instead, think conversation, reading aloud and sharing stories, and play (intentionally planned and encouraged by you but seen by the child as a simple, fun interaction with their world). Children learn best through play and, as preschool educators, we can dive in with them, be attentive to natural opportunities for teaching to occur and see the light bulbs go on.
Here's an example: the other day I was observing in a preschool classroom. An unfamiliar noise (the sound of a tape player bleeping) went off in another part of the room. The child in front of me said, "What's that?" I said, "Let's go investigate!" She looked at me as if to say, "I don't know what you mean." So I expanded my language to say, "The word 'investigate' means to closely inspect, check things out, find out what is behind, in our case, the noise we heard." When I saw the hint of understanding, I continued, "what could we use to investigate that sound? - our eyes, our ears,our brain?" We quickly grabbed a funnel (for cupping to our ear for better hearing) and a pair of toy binoculars (for closely looking) from the science center where we were. We were off to see what the noise was and where it came from.
In just a few seconds, we were exploring new vocabulary, searching out tools to help us solve the mystery, and using hands-on methods for solving the puzzle. I encouraged the teachers to continue to use that word "investigate" as they interacted with the children that day and to read nonfiction picture books so they can explore more types of investigating.
Read a terrific article by Lillian Katz on the Clearinghouse for Early Education and Parenting website that extends these concepts and talks about a basis in developmentally-appropriate practices and research. It is entitled Child Development Knowledge and Teachers of Young Children. Excerpts from this Internet site would be a great read for individual preschool teachers or as a center for group discussions among staff members during a staff meeting.
Also, there is a great guest blog on I.N.K.which includes several picture books recommended for investigating the natural world. It also includes an important thought from the well-known environmentalist, Rachel Carson. She said, "It is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world.” If that link doesn't take you to just the right spot on I.N.K., you can look under their category "youngest readers" and it will take you right to it.
Now, when the pressures to turn preschool into kindergarten into first grade are so great, remember how children learn best and rethink your approach. It's a question of short-term benefit (pleasing over-anxious parents who may not understand the development of their children and going against what you know is best for the children) or long-term benefits, which are the only kind that will make a better future for our children and our world.