A child’s first experience in school can be a wonderful foundation for a lifetime of learning, and that is one of the many reasons why early childhood programs are so very important. Independent schools have unique approaches to learning.
Here are some early education takeaways from Chicago area schools that are part of the Lake Michigan Association of Independent Schools.
Love of learning
Early childhood classrooms look like a ton of fun, and that’s because they are. That’s by design.
“We really do believe that kids learn through play, but it’s an issue of what kind of play,” explains Melinda Orzoff, Lower School division head of the Roycemore School in Evanston. “That play can have an academic bent to it and when it does, they really learn. It’s amazing to see how excited they are about it, but they have no idea they are learning.”
Patty Crylen, director of early childhood at the Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove, agrees. “We want our children to enjoy the process of learning when they are with us. We want our students to be lifelong learners.”
Parents can play a big part in helping kids love learning by continuing the learning at home and as part of their experience out in the world. “Extending learning outside of school lets kids make meaningful connections which are critical at this young age. Those efforts lead to better understanding of the concepts,” says Lisa Diones, Lower School head at Quest Academy in Palatine. Such efforts by parents also show kids that learning can happen anywhere, at any time.
Little minds work in amazing ways, and independent schools focus on fostering that creativity. For instance, at Avery Coonley, teachers put items out for children to play with on their own before discussing the item’s intended purpose. “We have creative children and sometimes they think of things that would never occur to us. You can always go back and show them something, but when you start with the purpose, it is hard to break out of that,” Crylen says.
Innovation is a big word, and Quest Academy uses it to describe its littlest students.
“We encourage our young gifted learners to become innovators at a young age. We want them to understand the iteration process of focusing on a problem and taking a collaborative approach to problem solving,” Diones explains. She says another key aspect of being an innovator is having a growth mindset and learning from mistakes.
Appreciation of the arts
“Young children learn so much when they participate in the arts. Dramatic play allows children to explore their emotions, learn to display them appropriately and learn how to regulate them. Visual arts in early childhood programs helps develop fine motor skills and introduces them to mathematical concepts like shape and size,” says Julie Burdick, a junior kindergarten teacher at the Science& Arts Academy in Des Plaines, where early childhood students attend art, music and drama at least once per week.
“Participating in group activities, such as a song and dance, not only helps children to develop their gross motor skills, but also teaches them to collaborate and negotiate with others, and fosters the development of problem-solving skills,” she says.
Meet each child where they are
Children learn at their own pace. Independent schools focus on differentiated learning for their youngest students to help them all reach their fullest potential.
“(Science& Arts Academy) teachers are responsible for developing and adjusting the curriculum to match the changing needs and interests of the students. Within each grade level and each class, there exists a range of skill levels. SAA is prepared to take students where they are and provide an appropriate level of challenge to each student,” says Tim Costello, head of school.
Social emotional learning
Playing well with others has long been part of early childhood education but independent schools are intently focused on the broader concept of social emotional learning, which also includes empathy and responsibility as well as a focus on making and maintaining positive relationships.
“In the early childhood area we help children develop interpersonal skills,” Orzoff says. She explains that they foster social interactions to teach cooperation, sharing, taking turns and respect for others. “It becomes part of the children’s ethos,” she says.
At Avery Coonley, the teachers focus on the positive and finding the good in others. “We treat our kids as we treat our parents – with respect. We look them in the eye and listen to them. They know they have value in our eyes,” Crylen says.