Preschool education:

Making the Grade

Today’s parents have a dizzying array of options when it comes to thinking about preschool for their children. In Illinois, preschool is not mandatory; however, many parents do enroll their children in a preschool program. Preschools can run the gamut from a modified day care environment to ones that have a formal academic curriculum.

The Sandbox Schools were created in 1968 by Beverly Avery and Sue Moustakas, two teachers with Master’s degrees in early childhood education, who wanted the best educational programs for their own children. Today, there are seven Sandbox Schools in the Chicagoland area.

Sandbox Centers have partnered with Oak Lawn School District 218 to provide care and education for employees of the District staff and employees. Their Midlothian location also provides learning opportunities for employees of three school districts in that area. Truly, Sandbox is attune to the needs of the families and the areas they serve.

Sue Moustakas explains,"Our centers are parent driven. We feel that the connection with the family is an essential ingredient in education.” While the Sandbox Centers follow the guidelines of the Illinois Early Learning Project (parents should check out, much of the curricula and focus of the center was fostered by the centers’ relationships with the parents themselves. In most preschool programs, children learn through interactive play—activities carefully designed to teach ideas and concepts.

The guidelines of the Illinois Early Learning Project form the basis of many preschool programs in Illinois. For example, the language arts guidelines list such benchmarks as: understanding that"pictures and symbols have meaning and that print carries a message.” Further, children entering kindergarten should also understand that"reading progresses from left to right and from top to bottom.” Throughout the year, a variety of activities will help the child to understand these concepts.

The Illinois Early Learning Project gives the example of snack time. A rebus card giving instructions as to how many crackers to take is laid out on the snack table. As the children learn to count out crackers, a variety of concepts are introduced. Counting, of course, but also the concepts of more or less can be discussed as well. Children may begin to line up their crackers in rows, or to group them. As you can see, a simple task or activity is fertile with opportunities to teach many ideas.

“Dr. Maria Montessori believed that a truly educated individual continues learning long after formal education because this person is motivated from within by a natural curiosity and love for knowledge. She felt that the goal of education should not be to fill the child with facts, but rather to cultivate the child’s own natural desire to learn.” That is the philosophy of the Montessori Academy of Glen Ellyn, founded in 1961, and the first Montessori school in DuPage County.

The Montessori Academy of Glen Ellyn has grown from one class of three to six year olds to a large community of families with children up until sixth grade. The school offers these suggestions as parents begin to search for the right preschool for their child. Visiting a school is, of course, essential. When visiting, look at the surroundings and imagine your child interacting with the children, the program, and the teachers. Are the children happy (notwithstanding the occasional blip or tussle)? Is the atmosphere respectful of the children? Are they engaged in constructive use of their time? Parents know their child best, and often one’s intuition tells you that this would (or would NOT) be the best fit for your child.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Dr. Montessori’s opening of the first Children’s House in Rome, Italy. Children have a natural curiosity, which is nurtured in the Montessori classroom. Children are grouped into age groups, so that the younger children have the benefit of interacting and learning from the older children.

In a Montessori environment the learning materials are centered around five focus areas: practical life, sensorial exercises, mathematics materials, language, and cultural studies. Dr. Montessori was ahead of her time in believing in the innate curiosity of the child, and the desire to learn.

The Gateway Montessori School is located on the northwest side of Chicago. Their program for preschoolers, 3 to 6 year olds, called The Children’s House, closely follows the teachings of Dr. Montessori."Montessori education can be seen as a triangle linking the child, the environment, and the teacher. Montessori education is a non-traditional and holistic approach to working with young children. Dr. Montessori’s most radical assertion was that children construct their own minds, and that they do so through activity. She realized that the first six years of a child’s life are the most important in his development.”

Although the new kid on the block, The Montessori Academy of Chicago is proving to be a dynamic force in the preschool game. The Montessori Academy just recently moved into its 12,000 square foot, state of the art space in the west Loop area. Its staff is passionate about children. Every staff member, including custodial staff, takes classes in the Montessori philosophy to become a para professional, and to help create the environment of love, respect, and learning.

Fosca Shackleton White, the Founding Parent and Directress of The Montessori Academy of Chicago, is proud of the commitment and diversity of the community of staff, students, and parents. The Montessori Academy of Chicago closely follows the Montessori curriculum. Teachers make time to work with each student individually every single day—the favorable student-teacher ratio in all age groups allow for such individual attention. Teachers closely observe each child, tailoring the learning experiences for maximum mastery.

The Montessori Academy, like most Montessori programs, allows for a cycle and rhythm of each day. The Montessori philosophy is designed so that each child can achieve success. Activities all progress toward the reading and writing concepts—moving from left to right, and up to down. As a child approaches the age to move into a traditional school program, the staff at The Montessori Academy works closely to ensure that the child will assimilate beautifully into the new learning environment.

While not a Montessori school, Christian Heritage Academy of Northfield also believes that children learn best through observation and action."The world is so new and exciting to a four year old! Children desperately need us to give them the gift of time to observe…. We also believe that children learn through play. What may seem like simple child’s play to us is actually a laboratory of work to a child!”

Instructors at Christian Heritage Academy also give their young students the opportunity to practice problem solving."When a child comes to us with a problem (for example, a child is struggling with building a block tower), rather than quickly solving the problem, we ask him for his input.”

Kathy Severson of Christian Heritage Academy shares:"We also subscribe to an on-line parent/teacher communication tool that allows us to communicate our students’ progress toward goals and standards directly to parents via pictures, scanned work done by the children as well as link parents to activities and articles that pertain directly to their child’s level of development—fun hands-on things they can do at home which are developmentally appropriate for their child.”

Observing a day in the life of a preschool and its students may LOOK like little more than play. As Christian Heritage so aptly describes, however, play is a child’s work. Small group time teaches so much more than sitting in a circle. Math and science concepts may be demonstrated. Books may be read, giving children information, as well as displaying a love of literature. Sometimes what is most important to a preschool child, however, is the result of their interactions with others. Sharing, taking turns, considering another child’s feelings, learning to wait….small tasks, but essential to a harmonious life within a school setting.

At Kiddie Junction Educational Institute, there is a wealth of programs to meet both your child care and educational needs. Kiddie Junction does offer day care for infants and toddlers, but progresses to a preschool program for older three and four year olds.Weekly themes incorporate activities that help foster independence. For older children, there is a summer camp, featuring two weekly field trips, daily swimming lessons, cook outs, and other activities. There is a kindergarten program, as well as before and after school care.

Robin Nordin, Executive Director of Kiddie Junction, explains,"Our preschool program incorporates our Creative Curriculum Continuum. Each lesson plan follows a theme which includes activities in the areas of art, music, stories, finger-plays, science and fine& large motor skill activities. It is our goal that by the time the children leave our Preschool program, they will have met the objectives in all four areas of development including physical, cognitive, social-emotional and creative development.”

Kiddie Junction also offers kindergarten readiness testing, and has an open door policy for parents. They truly believe in a partnership with the school and the parents.

No matter which kind of program you choose, it’s important to first look, listen and play.

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