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Unique ways schools engage young learners

Studies have shown that fostering a love of learning at a young age helps children build a solid foundation for the rest of their educational career.

With that in mind, some of the top schools around the Chicagoland area are trying innovative ideas to help instill that love of learning in the littlest learners.

Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University in Evanston offers innovative programming that supports and develops students’ academic talents in a way that gets the whole family involved.

“Many people think ‘gifted education’ only applies to older students, such as high schoolers who are ready to take college-level courses,” says Ann Gadzikowski, the center’s early childhood coordinator. “CTD also provides exciting learning experiences that are tailored for young children. CTD early childhood programming includes summer and weekend courses, as well as online family classes, for children as young as 4.”

Leaders at CTD keep a close eye on new trends, focusing on research-based approaches that offer the most appropriate path for young learners. For example, its Leapfrog Summer Program piloted a new track of hands-on technology courses that introduce coding, animation and robotics to children starting at the PreK level.

“Learning computer programming no longer means sitting in front of a screen and keyboard. At CTD, we’re using tablets, touchscreens, and child-friendly robots to teach children coding concepts and inspire them to think creatively and critically about the role of technology in their lives,” she said

At Lincoln Park Preschool in Chicago, educators believe that when children feel safe and confident, they are better equipped to explore and really learn, says Jenni Sorenson, community resource director for the school.

“Once they have that inner confidence, the learning comes so much easier,” she says. “Social and emotional development is as important as the academics side. At LPP, we keep a small class size and a small student-to-teacher ratio. We want there to be loving adults facilitating the play, the negotiating the sharing, and acknowledging the wonderful things they are doing in the classroom.”

The school believes it’s important to engage parents in the learning process from the beginning.

“From a young age, we have family learning programs, so they can come with parents and do mom and tot-type classes. They can explore the idea of preschool while still having the nurturing support of their parents right there,” she says.

LPP also places a high value on teachers’ education, with teachers at the school holding at least a bachelor’s degree.

“They have a wonderful knowledge of children’s developmental stages. They can challenge the ones who need to be challenged, and every day they are exploring in different ways and feeding their love of learning,” she says.

“When teachers know their kids so well, they’re able to help them take that next step.”

At the Gardner School, with locations in Chicago, Oak Brook and Northbrook, the faculty and staff turn classrooms into a creative environment to make learning fun.

“We encourage our kids to get messy by providing different areas in the classroom for exploration such as art easels, reading areas, dress-up stations and STEM areas where kids are encouraged to take apart items to see how they work,” says Laura Miller, the school’s marketing manager. “We make it a point to get to know our students individually, their likes and dislikes. Every child learns differently and once you make a point of using their names, favorite foods, games and books they will learn more when working with things they like.”

With locations in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, River North, Hyde Park and the West Loop, Sonnets Academy takes a purposeful-play approach for kids ages 6 weeks to 6 years.

“We want our students to be interested and engaged in their learning throughout the day, and be confident and eager to continue learning,” says Brianne Flynn, director of the Lincoln Park location. “We want to get their whole body involved. For example, when we’re doing art projects, instead of sitting at a table creating a project, we might splatter paint on the wall, or tape paper to the underside of the table so they lie down and paint above their heads.”

They also use an emergent curriculum directed by the older children in the schools.

“For example, our pre-kindergarten kids wanted to create a circus in their classroom, so the balance beam became a tightrope and the hula hoop became something for lions to jump through,” she says. “The whole thing became very important and meaningful to them.”

The school also incorporates many family nights, where students and their parents can create art or participate in other activities. Those projects are then displayed within the school.

“We want children and their parents to know there is no wrong way to express themselves,” she says. “You can’t use too many, or too few, colors in your painting. If it’s right for them, it’s right for us.”

The new Inspire Girls Academy, which will open next fall in Chicago, will focus on a STEAM curriculum. It will begin with preK and kindergarten classes, and add a grade level each year up until eighth grade.

Co-founder and head of school, Shalini Patel, believes the girls should be the center of the learning and the school will take a holistic approach to education.

“We want to develop every aspect of the child’s intellect, including social, emotional and academic potential through a rigorous approach of project-based learning,” she says. “So we will have them address real-world issues, ask meaningful questions and come up with solutions to problems.”

For example, a kindergarten lesson on animals could include a trip to the zoo, followed by identifying problems found with different animal habitats. Then the girls would study the animals in groups and identify ways zoologists might better make habitats suitable for zoo animals. The findings would then be presented to a team of zoologists for possible implementation.

“We want them to have ownership with their learning, and hopefully have the potential for seeing their solutions to problems implemented,” she says.

The school will also focus on the arts and mediation and yoga. “One of the things you learn in yoga is that it’s not about being perfect, but on improving yourself,” she says. “We want to foster that environment in school. It’s OK to fail, and then we can talk about why they failed and what they could do differently. We want to create an environment where it’s OK to fail, learn from our mistakes and move on.”

Part of Making the Grade, a special advertising education guide.

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