From the moment your child is born, society encourages you to think about the future. After all, the experiences you’re giving your infant, toddler or preschooler will have a dramatic impact on their future success. There’s some truth to this, but probably not in the way you think.
Research suggests that in early childhood, intense focus on reading, writing and spelling to guard against “falling behind academically” is counterproductive, says Kelly Perez, Preschool Director and Vice President of Education Programs at The Natalie G. Heineman Smart Love Preschool.
The purpose of preschool is to nurture children’s positive feelings about school and learning. It’s these feelings that are the engine that drives children’s success in school.
“From over 45 years of working with children in a therapeutic setting and 12 years in early childhood education, the Smart Love approach has demonstrated that it’s not about when children learn to read or add or subtract, but how they feel about it,” Perez says. “When children feel confident and love coming to school, their learning blossoms.”
Perez asks what good it does to teach toddlers and preschoolers reading and math skills if they aren’t mature enough to enjoy it? “The result is that they enter their elementary years not liking school and having negative associations with learning,” she explains.
The benefits of preschool should align with the purpose and philosophy of a high-quality preschool program, namely, to “nurture curiosity and foster a love of learning in the most developmental way possible,” Perez explains.
Young children are naturally enthusiastic learners who are curious about their world. If a preschool shapes everything around this concept, children thrive. And, says Perez, parents should expect this of their preschool.
Emotional, social, cognitive advantages of preschool
“Often, preschool is a child’s first opportunity outside of their family to experience adults as caring, nurturing and having their best interests at heart,” Perez says. She explains that because children idealize their teachers, this relationship impacts how they feel about learning and school for years to come.
When teachers are sensitive to the needs of their students and meet each child where they are developmentally, children recognize school is a place to feel happy and competent. Eventually, as elementary students, they’re eager to experience school culture and enjoy the learning process.
Preschool helps children socially by helping them learn how to navigate the ups and downs of peer relationships, care for themselves and others, and learn what it means to be and have a friend. When young children aren’t forced to adopt adult social norms like sharing or taking turns but have teachers available to help them understand their feelings, they have a model of how to handle tricky social situations in the future.
From a cognitive perspective, a play-based curriculum is best for early childhood. “Because play is how young children interact with and explore their world, it is the richest learning format,” Perez explains. A play-based program is the building block for nurturing positive feelings about school because it comes so naturally for children.
Play also provides valuable insights for teachers to understand where the child is cognitively and how and when the teacher can enrich concepts through children’s play.
“When engaged in play, all learning naturally occurs — colors, numbers, letters, names, even reading,” Perez says.
In a Smart Love Preschool classroom on any given day, a child may build a store and the teacher will ask the child if the store has a name. Together, they write the name and tape it to the store. What and how much should be sold in the store? The teacher and children organize, create and count all the merchandise.
“Children learn the most complex concepts this way,” she says. “When teachers continually ignite and preserve children’s curiosity, they far exceed the basic concepts and are on to things that are much more complicated cognitively.”
When teachers meet the needs of their students in a developmentally appropriate preschool classroom, children build a stable desire to learn that doesn’t depend on subject matter, Perez says. “They enjoy the process of learning and the pleasure of using their minds, not just the outcome. They have the willingness to stick to it.”
Happiness at home
In a preschool where every child feels uniquely cared for, valued, heard and understood, students naturally become optimistic, resilient, self-regulated and happy. These attributes translate to a happier life at home within their family, Perez says.
“This part is key. Parents share with me how eager and excited their children are to come to school, so much so that many times children don’t want to leave because they are having so much fun in our classrooms!” she says.
And, because teachers in a high-quality preschool are knowledgeable about early childhood development, they can offer insight to parents about their child’s behavior.
“This helps tremendously when they wish their child to share, be more cooperative with transitions, go to bed on time, learn to use the toilet — and even when they welcome a new sibling to the family,” Perez says. “We are a partner and a resource for parents — helping to make parenting easier.”
In Perez’s experience, Smart Love Preschool offers long-lasting benefits.
“We have followed our alumni over the 12 years we have been here and we know that children who have attended Smart Love branch out and embrace the world around them,” she says. “They continue to love learning and participate in ways that are meaningful and robust. They like a challenge and they feel competent.”
Learn more about Smart Love Preschool’s unique child-centered environment in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. Visit smartlovepreschool.org.
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