Tag Archives: preschool

How Do You Know When You Have Found the Perfect Preschool?

muddy feet
A place where I can kick my shoes off and sink my toes in the mud.

Regular readers will remember that when I moved to the US, I struggled to find a preschool that I was entirely happy with.  I became so disillusioned that I decided to home preschool for a year. I’d lost faith of ever finding a preschool that valued play, independence and individuality above academics and rigid schedules until a friend told me of a preschool situated on a farm.  The preschool shared my belief that children learn best by doing things that have relevance in their lives through exploring, discovering and creating.

The school is so popular that it was a whole year before I had a chance to visit and see the school for myself. Children were busy pulling apart sunflower heads on the covered deck area whist others moved freely between the different activities indoors and outdoors. The teacher’s enthusiasm and passion for both the children and the setting was evident immediately and a bubble of excitement rose up within me. Our name was put on the waiting list for Sept 2015 but before Christmas a place became available in the co-op class so finally my youngest daughter had the chance to attend.  This was perfect as I also had the chance to be involved in this wonderful experience as a parent helper.

ducklings

There was little doubt in my mind that this was the perfect preschool for my outdoor loving daughter. My expectations were high. I have been fortunate to teach at a highly acclaimed nursery in the UK and to visit the best preschools in my local authority as an advisory teacher. My experience of this school has surpassed all my expectations, I couldn’t have hoped for a more perfect preschool for my daughter and I am only sad that my older daughters didn’t have a chance to go there. After she started, it just seemed to get better.  Regularly she would come home covered from head to toe in mud.  To some parents this would be horrific but to me it meant she had the freedom to be herself and have fun.

Being a part of the co-op class means that I get to help out once a month. This is the most exciting part for me as I get to join in.   I love the covered deck area which enables the children to play outdoors all year.  The children explore the whole farm for the 2nd part of the session, mud, water, animals, climbing and balancing. They are actively encouraged to take risks.

long paintbrushes.
As we arrive my daughter always chooses to paint . She liked this painting activity with paintbrushes placed on extended poles.
painting with feathers
Painting with feathers

What makes it so perfect?

1. Children are individuals

Small classes and the dedication and experience of the teacher, mean that she understands each child as an individual. My daughter who is uncomfortable speaking in a group or to unfamiliar adults is given time to think about what she wants to say, often being presented with a question at the start of a session and returning for a response later.  The child who hates to get his hands dirty is offered alternative tools and all the materials are open-ended so that children can use them as they see fit.

2.Children are competent

Children are always encouraged to try things for themselves, even when they ask for help they are first encouraged to try.  The children are trusted to use adult tools for woodworking and tinkering, peeling vegetables and cooking.  The teacher shows them how to use the tools safely and responsibly and thereon in they are trusted with them.  The children cook their own green eggs and ham on the tiny stove, they dig with metal shovels, they observe candle flames and peel carrots with a peeler.  Outside they are permitted to climb trees, feed the animals, hold guinea pigs and dig in the mud. The children are trusted to handle precious materials like birds eggs, chicks and nests.

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This tinker table is always available. I regularly see children sawing pieces of wood placed in the clamps, hammering nails or taking apart electronics with a screwdriver. In the nursery I taught at we had a tool bench with real tools but we weren’t confident enough to leave it out all of the time. I have never seen a child have an accident or do anything dangerous with the tools.

climbing trees at preschool
My daughter loves to climb trees – I’m not sure I could find anywhere else where this would actively be encouraged.

3. The Preschool fosters understanding and respect for nature.

Many of the activities involve the natural rhythms of the farm, collecting the produce, understanding the cycles of the plants and learning about the animals and creatures they find.

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After the first few sessions, my daughter told me they had unicorns at preschool but that it was too small to have grown a horn yet. A preschool with unicorns? Could it get anymore magical?

ducklings.
When the duck’s eggs hatched the children were allowed to hold them.
bug hunt
A bug hunt in the woods

4. Children’s thoughts and opinions are important

Each session the children are asked a question and the answers are recorded for parents to read on the wall outside.  The children listen to each others responses and discuss them with respect.  The children’s choices are respected as they are presented with a number of activities to choose from at leisure. They also have opportunities to choose the songs they will sing and are confident at asking for things.  The children are offered a snack, they choose when and if they would like to eat it .

5. They have fun.

wading in the swamp
On the last day of school, parents are invited to join the children as they wade in the swamp.
horse riding on the last day of term
horse riding on the last day of term

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Best of all, I feel that my daughter experiences something here that she would never have the chance to experience elsewhere.  I feel so fortunate to have found this preschool and that my daughter has one more year there.  When our time is over I will be so sad but I hope I can remember her teacher’s words of wisdom.

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Home Preschooling – Doing it My Way

blocksThis year I am home preschooling my 2 youngest, not something I ever thought I would find myself doing but my reasons for making this choice can be found in a previous post Why I am Home Preschooling my Children.

I get a mixed reaction from people, some give me a glazed expression as if to say really? Can’t you just send them to preschool like the rest of us?  Others wonder why on earth I would want to. Some look at me as if I am some kind of Supermum and others as if I am denying my kids a normal social life.  Some however, just want to know how it all works and what exactly I do with them – this post is for you.

It really isn’t rocket science, I don’t follow a rigid schedule and  home schooling allows us loads of flexibility. My 5-year-old said today

I’m glad we are doing your preschool because it means we can go to the zoo whenever we want.

It isn’t entirely without structure though – I plan for the learning environment and have a timetable .  I suppose it is a little like having a plan for how you spend time with your children. It isn’t an academic preschool, we play and explore together, sometimes they play alone and we share interests, questions and ideas.

What about interaction with other children?

One day a week we have no preschool the girls go to ballet class, meet with friends and help me with normal everyday things like grocery shopping.

large blocks
Building a mountain with the large blocks.

Two days a week we attend a local membership based playspace, it’s a little like a toddler group in the UK except that it is a purpose-built space and is open all day. Some  of the music and language games we play at home don’t work very well with only 2 children  so I run music and movement, craft, sensory play or storytelling sessions here which gives us an opportunity to do activities in a larger group.  The rest of the time I allow them to free play but take their learning diaries to record what they may be interested in or achieving  in a different context.  The girls get chance to play with other children and use different materials than those we have at home.

The other 2 days are home based but sometimes we will use one of them to go out on a trip.

Timetabling

visual timetable)One of the things I have disliked about many preschools is the rigidity of their schedules.  There seemed to be little time for the children to become absorbed in a project or flexibility about what they might do each day.  I did however feel it was important to have some schedule in place.  I created a visual timetable using printed symbols.  Certain symbols are always present – Snack, lunch, free play and others I add in based on what we might do that day.  The symbols can be moved around and often if we don’t have time for an activity I move it to the bottom of the timetable to be saved for next time.  Sometimes I let the children plan the timetable  although they don’t exactly have a realistic understanding of time so we usually end up with far too many activities to get through in one day. It is also a really good way of regulating screen time, this usually goes into the timetable for after lunch followed by outdoor choosing time and if they ask for it earlier in the day I point them to the timetable. I’m surprised at how well the timetable works , the girls really respond to it and look forward to knowing what they are doing next.

How we Plan

observation into planning

I plan, building on the children’s interests to provide next steps in their learning.  If I observe the children following consistent patterns of play, enjoying particular materials or asking questions, I record them and consider what I might plan next to enable the children to use this skill or interest in a different way or to extend their learning further.  For example, my  youngest daughter has just learned to cut with scissors and loves to  snip paper into tiny pieces.  She also loves gluing so I suggested they use the pieces to make a collage. As an extension to this we are going to look at pictures of mosaics for further inspiration and play with wooden pattern tiles. Only having 2 children to observe means that their learning experiences can be truly individualised in a way that might not be possible in a bigger setting.

collage

Planning for the Learning Environment

environment planning

In addition to this I also have a plan for the environment.  How often this changes is fairly flexible. Using  information from the observation into planning, I might decide to include particular materials with the sand or water, put a particular craft activity out, lay out particular toys, set up a new role play area or display materials in a certain way. For example the girls were playing cafes at the play centre so at home the next day I gave them  notebooks to take orders and a chef’s hat.  I laid the table and I was the customer. This also allowed them to build on some of their other current interests like emergent writing and playing picnics. Sometimes we may just try something new and see if they like it and how they play with it – they are usually good at making suggestions as to what we might do next.

The Learning Environment

There are certain materials I like to always have available to the children

  • sand (outside)
  • water (outside)
  • craft materials
  • paper and pencils
  • books
  • loose parts
  • construction
  • small world toys
  • role play and dressing up

In an ideal world clay and paint also but this is a little messy even for me especially in the winter when we don’t use outside as much.

All these materials however are difficult to manage. I have recently reorganised our playroom but I still feel that there are too many things on view.


It isn’t as easy to have the environment you would like when it is your own home but I’m constantly re-evaluating how we display things and adding new ideas to the outside area.

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