I carefully surveyed the classroom, beginning with the bulletin boards and expecting to see shapes, colors, numbers and, perhaps, the alphabet. Instead, I saw language arts information about digraphs (such as “ch” and “sh”) and the “magic 'E' rule.” Another board featured math facts that included not only addition and subtraction but multiplication.
Although a few areas of the classroom appeared to encourage play and social and emotional development, the room was mostly designed to help students develop cognitive skills, and many of these skills fell outside of developmentally appropriate guidelines for preschoolers.
I wondered, Why has the focus of some preschools become so intensely academic in recent years? Then I thought back to parent-teacher conferences when I taught preschool and recalled several well-meaning parents telling me they were concerned about their child getting into college. College. The children we were discussing were 4 years old. While some children may be ready to read and study math facts at that age, requiring these skills of children who are not ready could have negative impact on the child.
This is where developmentally appropriate practice comes in. Developmentally appropriate practice is a term early childhood educators use often, but one many outside the field might not understand. Essentially, it means that we teach according to what research and developmental theories tell us is best for children.
So, putting the hand-wringing aside, here are a few skills I believe teachers (and parents) should help preschoolers develop so they arrive in kindergarten ready to succeed:
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- Fine motor skills.
- Listening skills.
- Basic needs.
- Social skills and conflict resolution.
- Free, unstructured play.
One of the first things I do when I meet kindergarteners is provide an activity that involves cutting using child-sized scissors. Many of the children I meet cannot manipulate scissors properly, yet research shows this skill is vital for young learners. Beading, using crayons, spooning, tonging, and other activities can help build fine motor skills so their little hands are truly ready to write when the time comes.
Learning to take care of their own basic needs, such as setting up lunches, putting on their own jacket, and eventually tying their own shoes, fosters independence in even the youngest preschoolers.
Preschool is the perfect time to help children learn how to get along with others, to share, to take turns, and to work through conflict peacefully. The National Association for the Education of Young Children offers many resources to help teachers foster social and emotional development in preschool children.
Children need to explore without the limitations adults sometimes place around activities. Whenever you can, just keep your hands behind your back, resist the temptation to direct every single activity, and let them develop.
You might just be amazed at what they can do all by themselves.