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Play to Learn

With a new class of 3-year-olds, CWA expands early childhood education program so youngest Tarriers may thrive

by Kimberly Banti

What if school was designed for 3-year-olds to thrive?

This is the question CWA posed when developing an early childhood education (ECE) program for a new class of youngest Tarriers, and it is what drew now-Early Childhood Education Director and Lower School Assistant Director Francesca Gallozzi to join the school community. Having spent the previous nine years teaching at San Diego State University in the Department of Child and Family Development, preparing young educators to enter classrooms across the country, Ms. Gallozzi missed being on the ground with children and their families. “I came across the position statement for this role and was intrigued by the question, which has been a cornerstone of my career—whether as preschool or elementary teacher, parent educator, program director, or college lecturer,” she said.

Doors opened in fall 2019 to the inaugural class of 3-year-old students, but active planning had been well underway for more than two years. Early conversations with faculty included discussion of what teachers most fondly recalled from their own childhoods and educational experiences. “Just as soon as pencils hit the paper, themes started to emerge,” Mr. Zosel-Johnson recalled. “No one wrote down worksheets, or sitting in rows, or listening to direct instruction. What the teachers did write, however, captured the essence of the program we aimed to create.” He noted recollections of building forts, jumping in puddles, reading with a loved adult, climbing trees, running through the woods, and other activities that may not traditionally be associated with school. “Our strongest memories of childhood tend to revolve around three main characteristics: autonomy, creativity, and meaning,” Mr. Zosel-Johnson said.

In an ever-changing world we can be certain of very little, but what we do know is that successful adults are curious, self-motivated, critical thinkers who get right back up to try again after failing. Our early childhood program is designed to instill these traits in our youngest learners. Nick Zosel-Johnson, Lower School Director

Having identified skills and dispositions that will support students’ success as they progress through their education, the ECE program’s goal “is to teach skills in the context of play and projects,” Ms. Gallozzi said. “There’s a false dichotomy between ‘play’ and ‘academics’ that assumes these ideas and practices are mutually exclusive. They aren’t. When children play—and by that I mean explore materials and ideas in sustained and meaningful ways—what we describe as ‘academic’ concepts are being developed and used in context. This idea is very different from the practice of teaching skills in isolation. You can train a child to do things with letters and numbers, but the real understanding and application of number concepts and language comes through play and activity.”

Play and activity looks different from child to child, and so the 3-year-old Tarriers move through their classroom on their own timetables and self-direct by serving themselves a snack when they are hungry or curling up in the cozy corner when they need a break. Making these choices can be considered micro lessons in learning how to navigate the future with confidence, allowing students to manage time and learn self-reliance from their earliest days in a school environment. At first glance, navigating the future with confidence may seem to encompass vastly different skillsets depending on age, but Ms. Gallozzi challenges “the assumption that it looks different for a 3-year-old and a high schooler. While the demands may be different—today’s forest outing versus starting college—the dispositions essential to navigating the future are the same,” she said. “Students who can navigate with confidence are those who have learned from the significant adults and experiences in their school and lives that their questions are legitimate, that there are often multiple ways to solve problems, that taking a risk and trying something new is worthwhile, that adults can be partners in discovery, and that the capacity for finding answers and facing challenge is within them.”

Fifth grade teacher and the Lower School upper elementary cluster chair Carie Ward feels similarly. “Everything looks different for students of different ages, because we teach in developmentally appropriate ways, but there are also universal aspects to preparing students to navigate the future with confidence,” she said. “From our youngest to our oldest Tarriers, we support students to become more independent and self-directed in their learning, encourage students to develop community and be responsible to themselves and the people and space around them, and challenge students to build unique ideas based on reasoning and evidence.”

It’s this evolution based on age and context that’s at the core of the ECE program. “Play is the way we integrate sensory information, language, and experience—it’s how we learn,” Ms. Gallozzi said. “Children do this naturally, when given the time and space to do so. They form theories, do experiments, play with language, make up stories, try different movements, and then figure out what works and what doesn’t. They learn to respond to the unexpected.”

For instance, when preschool students recently discovered spiders living in the nooks and crannies of the playground, they began to ask questions: What spiders are they? What do webs do? Can we catch them? The teachers supported this curiosity by creating opportunities for the students to catch, observe, and release the spiders—allowing both adults and children who were uncomfortable with these creatures the chance to learn how to manage their fear. The students drew pictures, practiced writing the letter “S,” and learned some of the differences between arachnids and insects. “Such experiences, based in the real world, prepare children for a future in which they encounter something new or strange,” Ms. Gallozzi said. “Instead of avoiding it, they learn to lean in, wonder, and ask questions. And the truth is that we can’t predict what the world will look like when these students leave CWA. So our responsibility is not to fill them up with information, but to give them the tools to acquire and create knowledge in a world whose demands are as yet unknown, where they will navigate the future with confidence.” //

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