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The Importance of Early Academics

Posted By Administration, Monday, September 26, 2016

When one hears the word preschooler it connotes the idea that children are involved in activities prior to school or outside of a school setting.  As a society, we question the necessity of sending our youngest learners to school rather than to a daycare environment.  The thought exists that education for three- and four-year-olds is “just play.”  How can a person justify the time and money for an academic preschool program when higher education costs are so expensive? 

Let’s view education as analogous to a construction project.  Consider the building of a house.  Early educational experiences serve as the foundation for the building.  Without a solid base, the structure crumbles partway through and needs to be remediated to progress further.  Though it takes a significant amount of time to complete the foundation, it is imperative to the overall integrity of the structure.  If the builder cuts corners or tries to skip steps, there is typically a negative consequence. As it is with education:  without laying the groundwork with plentiful multi-sensory, hands-on experiences, learning desire and even competency can falter.  

As adults, we often view education in content areas, so let’s look at different curricular areas to see how preschool programs support and enhance each subject.   Scientific inquiry begins with noticing and questioning.  At ACS, a walk through the forest with a collection basket brings a multitude of science into the classroom.  The scientific method is simplified to “ask, do, and record,” which builds the pathway for future scientific discovery.  Math concepts also mature on a developmental timeline.  The concept of number begins with using concrete objects that can be manipulated to gain a solid understanding of more, less, and equal.  The concrete stage is followed by the connecting level (objects plus written numerals) and progresses to the symbolic level, which we typically think of as solving equations. Experiencing math is much different than memorizing math facts and builds a strong basis for higher level math reasoning. Likewise, the early childhood experiences of telling stories, hearing and creating rhymes, and playing with sounds in music and poetry all lead children down the path of literacy development and help to “crack the code” of reading. In preschool, children also foster the growth of written communication skills by drawing pictures, dictating descriptions, and connecting sounds with letters to tell stories. The ACS preschool program places a high priority on literacy and mathematics by providing center activities, small group instruction, individualized conferencing, and developmentally appropriate lessons to target foundational skills such as observation, articulation, and interpretation.

Beyond gaining this essential academic foundation, early childhood education programs cultivate a myriad of other “soft” cognitive skills.  Because preschool furnishes the opportunity for children to explore, investigate, and delve into situations with peers, children can experience learning as an adventure.  Developing flexibility of thought and appropriate responses to conflict occur naturally when interacting with peers. When children have preschool experience, they build the ability to take risks as learners and to learn from their struggles.  For three- and four-year-old children, playtime is the most beneficial time of the day.  It is not a break from learning but rather learning itself.  Experts are in place who know when to scaffold and when to step back, so that through dramatic play situations, children can practice conflict resolution, compromise, and delayed gratification.  Moreover, play allows them to see cause-effect relationships, develop sequencing strategies, and categorize objects and thoughts. 

The vast majority of early childhood education is experiential.  Through multi-sensory activities, children attach meaning to abstract ideas, relate prior knowledge to new concepts or events, make connections and generalizations, analyze their environment, and synthesize information – all with the teachers’ guidance and support.  To help illustrate this point, we can examine some core components of the ACS Junior Kindergarten program.  The structure of the day is designed to provide security and a safe learning environment that bolsters risk-taking and increases communication between students and teachers.  The children begin the day at the “Welcome Mat.”  Choice is built into this social interaction as the children select a greeting of a hug, handshake, wave, or high-five to start the day.  In a non-threatening and supportive environment, the children individually read through the daily sign-in sentence and place their name card in the corresponding graphing chart.  Although the exchange is brief, this scaffolded approach to learning builds foundational academic skills such as word boundaries, one-to-one correspondence, and graph interpretation.  A second part to the daily routine boosts executive function skills.  With the teacher, children outline a play plan.  Students choose to attend featured activities during a 45- to 60-minute time block.  The activities highlight varying learning modalities (artistic, musical, dramatic, kinesthetic, tactile, construction, large motor, mathematical, linguistic, and strategic).  In order to support the growth of planning, sequencing, and follow-through, the children pick which centers they want to attend and move their picture card on a chart that tracks their choices.  At the conclusion of center time, the teachers conference with each child to review the activities; this allows them to learn about the student’s preferred learning styles and guide future growth.  Through scaffolded social interactions such as these, the students develop skills of cooperation, self-regulation, and resilience that have impacts far beyond early childhood. 

There may be a temptation to believe higher education is more important that preschool education because there is a tangible measure of success upon completion—the diploma.  Nevertheless, this final accomplishment is set in motion by preschool education.  Engaging in meaningful learning with peers at a young age sets the stage for investigative mindsets, perseverant attitudes, and collaborative problem-solving abilities.  Children learn about their world and develop character by interacting and engaging in preschool activities.  Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten could easily be re-titled Preschool Made Me Who I Am Today. 

Lisa Wiltz
ACS Early School Co-Coordinator and Junior Kindergarten Teacher

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