It has been said that enthusiasm is caught, not taught.
So often young people in preschool and kindergarten are excited and eager to begin their scholastic career. Several years later, these same children are disheartened and moaning about school.
What happens? How can we ensure that our youngest students catch that enthusiasm for life time learning?
The Montessori Academy of Chicago is an innovative facility designed to meet the growing need for a loving, enriching environment for infant to elementary age children of Chicago. Their web site says it all, "For us, the goal is simple: to awaken the love of learning inherent in every child."
Many parents are familiar with the well designed curriculum of Maria Montessori, where the environment is one of the key components of learning, and the highly qualified staff gently facilitates the learning process in a home like setting. Fosca White of the Montessori Academy notes that the Montessori curriculum emphasizes treating children as individuals, and points out that children are engaged, rather than occupied.
She cites the example in which several of the older children in the toddler program were treated to an experience in flower arranging. With small vases, pitchers, safe scissors, and flowers, they spent a considerable amount of time filling the vases with water, clipping the stems, and arranging the flowers into their very own arrangements. Their efforts were displayed and complimented throughout the day. This exercise encouraged guided independence and took advantage of the toddler desire to "do it myself."
Many programs emphasize the environment as key to a lifetime love of learning. At Lake Forest Country Day School (LFCD), the preschool teachers, Frances Robinson and Jennifer Pelc, point out a teachers' enthusiasm for the program and the child will provide the child with enough confidence to question, to explore, to experiment, and to take risks.
The day begins with a meeting time for sharing all of the special times and events in the life of each child. This is followed by the formal meeting where the lesson plan is shared. Children at LFCD develop school skills by participating in activities that are simple, fun, and exciting.
Yet these activities provide each child with endless opportunities to learn and grow. Among other topics, emphasis is given to being good stewards---of the classroom, friends, community, and the planet. This theme is woven into the classroom by composting their leftover snacks; by using cloth napkins and washable cups for meals and snacks; and by watching the Halloween pumpkin decompose in the garden.
At Brickton Montessori School, the mission "inspires students to become life long learners and responsible participants in our diverse global community." The school closely follows the Montessori philosophy "not to prepare the child for school, but for life."
"A hallmark of the Montessori classroom for 3- (to) 6-year olds is the segmentation of the environment into five focus areas, including Practical Life," says Brickton's Molly Arnoldt. "The Practical Life exercises are the everyday activities we engage in to take care of the environment or ourselves. For example, washing our hands before scrubbing an apple which we then cut and enjoy for snack or serve to friends."
These skills "help a child develop order, concentration, understand a sequence of activity and promote independence and a sense of accomplishment," Arnoldt says.
River Forest Community Center has an Early Childhood Education Center, featuring programs for children as young as 15 months old.
"Many people are amazed at what a child can accomplish in a play-based environment," Lia Madonia of the Early Childhood Education Center says. "For instance: building with blocks can develop math skills by introducing concepts such as perceptions of size, weight, and shape. It also promotes social skills by enhancing problem solving techniques."
She applauds the teachers and staff at the center "who are excited to teach young children -- they interact with their students and are not afraid to do a silly dance or get extremely messy if it helps encourage their students and enjoy coming to school each day."
Over and over again, educators emphasize that a lifelong love of learning is the result of self-driven exploration, rather than trying to "teach" children. If a child asks a question, this is the ideal time to provide materials which will help the child discover the answer.
The Compass School is inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia in Reggio, Italy. In 1991, Newsweek magazine praised the Reggio Emilia approach as one of the best educational programs in the world. The philosophy sees the child as strong and competent, and the educational approach is guided by observation of the children.
There are five Compass schools, each different, based on the needs of the community. The children work together, with their teachers, and examine and change their world with detailed projects that they choose---projects are chosen based on the children's and the teacher's interests and curiosity.
Erica Farney of the Compass School in Naperville says, "We give children opportunities to find the answers to their questions. Yes, it would be easier to give the children the answers, but instead we give them the tools to investigate and find answers on their own…..If the class is doing a project on dogs, the classroom will be designed to support the project. There would be dog dishes, food, bowls, dog toys, pet bed in the dramatic play area, a scale, pencil and graphing paper in the math, area along with books with different sizes and weights of dogs."
Sandbox Learning Centers specialize in children from ages 6 weeks to 12 years old.
"At Sandbox School, we know that children are born ready and eager to learn. Every young infant, toddler and preschooler needs time and a place to discover, absorb, think, and wonder, and to try and try again to figure things out," Sue Moustakas says. "Little children need to feel excited, confident, and competent in their own ability to learn….The curriculum is chosen for each classroom to best meet the individual needs of the children in that particular group, according to interest, abilities and culture. In an environment that is appropriate, warm, nurturing and well facilitated, a love of learning will bloom."