The Preschool’s Secret Weapon

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Posted by David Maddalena | Posted in Anghelika and David Maddalena | Posted on 31-03-2014

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There is a prejudice about learning that preschool teachers face, especially in our hard-driving academic culture.

This prejudice is the belief that an environment designed around play and exploration is not academically stimulating enough to prepare children for later school success. Couple this belief with the slippery slope of always wanting to start “preparing” our children at earlier and earlier ages so that they will never be behind, so that they will always be ahead of the game, and preschools come under a great deal of pressure to introduce more and more conventional academics.

But the secret weapon of the preschool is that early childhood education is a holistic deal—learning happens in a social/emotional/intellectual landscape. Young children learn (find meaning) through their senses, relationships, perceptions, and emotions. There is no way at this age to isolate an academic subject from this contextual field and present it as symbols on a piece of paper (as is common in later education).

Take language: when many children first encounter preschool at around age two, they have a vocabulary of roughly 350 words. As they enter the ‘school’ world, they find themselves in new environments, they face new problems, and they experience a sudden increase in the number of relationships, all of which leads to an explosion of language. By the time this two-year old reaches 1st grade, they will have multiplied their vocabulary by 4 or 5 times.

But it makes no sense to say that academics don’t start until elementary school, or that preschools don’t focus on cognitive development. The foundations of later cognitive success are laid in the holistic learning environment of the preschool. In fact some of a person’s most important cognitive growth is happening during these early years. Language itself is the basis for communication, and communication is the basis for learning. Communication skills are first learned in relationships, because relationships require young children to make sense of competing agendas, and language is the essential skill here, because the way that children negotiate emotional and social complexity is with words. Language won’t be mastered unless it is first mastered in the context of developing relationships and social interaction, which are the first and best curricula of the preschool classroom.

Even solo fantasy play is critical to the development of these social/emotional/intellectual skills … because it provides the social and relational contexts denied to a child by reality, enabling them to practice at things that are not possible in the ‘real world’. Where else, after all, can a child practice being a hero, a warrior, part of the royal court, or that most challenging role … a parent. In fantasy play, the child is learning the basic languages (social, emotional, and yes, academic) of roles they will not be qualified to fill for decades. Talk about being ahead of the game!

So, as the debate on academics continues, look on the giant playroom of the preschool as a laboratory for the scientific advancement of foundational cognitive skills. You can see the beginning of a great education here. You just need to know what to look for.

Slow Down

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Posted by Gina Perkins, Pre-School Mommie | Posted in Gina Perkins | Posted on 24-12-2013

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slow-down-and-enjoy-the-moment

To all those who are celebrating, I wish you a very Merry Christmas Eve!

I was standing in line at See’s Candies yesterday, when my ears were assaulted by petty complaints.  Sure, it was busy in there – but wasn’t that a given? I mean, it was the day before Christmas Eve. In fact, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the crowd – fewer last minute shoppers than I had anticipated.

Now, I didn’t know it at the time, but DJ, my four year old had a double ear infection.  (She wouldn’t make that obvious till about 30 minutes after our See’s departure. Poor kid).  A nervous sales clerk wandered the store with a tray full of free samples.  She kept offering chocolates to my girls.  I didn’t mind. It was her job. I even heard her mention more than once that she was “just trying to keep people happy as they waited in line.” It bothered me that people were even unhappy, in need of the sugary bribing.

But, they were. Three unrelated women in line just behind me, complained in unison, as if they’d been rehearsing together for years. Each one egging the others on.  “Why is this taking so long?” “They should have more registers open.” “I’m a total germaphobe, and this small space is just crawling with illness (I wasn’t sure if this was a direct hit to our family, who was doing their share of sniffling).” And my favorite, “I parked illegally, thinking I’d just be able to run in. I’ll be really upset if I get a ticket!”  Um, lady, that would be your fault, not the poor cashiers who are sweating bullets and bending over backward to keep their smiles.

At one point, I turned to face them all. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do, or say. In fact, I think maybe I just intended to flash them my “mom-look.” That one that reads, “stop it, already.” But, as I was turning to face them, a thought came across my mind – I’d just step aside and let all three ladies go in front of me. And then a funny thing happened, as I faced them, two looked away, and the one directly behind me said, “well, it’s the holidays, it’s going to be crowded anywhere.”

Yes. Yes, it’s the holidays.  And so far, I hadn’t overheard even one “Merry Christmas!”

In that moment, something occurred to me. We all know that complaining is ugly.  We all know that we’re supposed to treat others with more compassion. We all know that the holidays, of all times, are a time for giving – patience, kindness, politeness, forgiveness, and selflessness.  Why then, don’t we practice those things? Why do we choose to complain instead?

I think it’s because we’re all in such a big hurry. We’re always on the clock with our lives timed out down to the minute. We have this place to be, and that.  We’re late for work. Our meeting ran over. Dinner is served at 6:00. Bath time is at 6:45. Bed time is at 7:30. We have a conference call at 7:45. And that book we’ve been meaning to finish. And lunches to pack. And a partner to connect with. And, and, and.

And, we’re never unplugged. Never disconnected. Rarely spontaneous. We’re married to our iPhones, which afford us a certain type of instant gratification.  We don’t have time to look up and smile at a stranger, because we’re too busy looking down – treating friendships like business affairs, by texting our way through the relationship. We’ve lost the art of communication. The urgency for the real stuff that human interaction is all about. We don’t know how to connect intimately anymore. And, we’re so mad at anyone who gets in the way of our agenda.  How many times a day do our kids hear, “Hurry up!” come barreling out of our mouths?

What if our agenda was simply to slow down? What if our agenda was to be present? What if we re-prioritized? What would happen if we decided not to park illegally, and instead choose the spot at the far end of the lot? Gosh, maybe we could use those extra 72 seconds of walking to take some deep breaths, to notice the poppies growing out of the cement, to hear the Christmas music from a neighboring storefront, to help a struggling mother load groceries into her trunk? What if we stopped breaking the rules in an effort to save time – and instead, we savored our time?

I didn’t let those ladies cut in front of me in line.  That gesture was fleeting once I realized that they realized they had been caught.  Ha!  I was sad for DJ, though, that her excitement in sharing how we were going to bake a cake to celebrate Jesus’ birthday (our Christmas Eve tradition) wasn’t met with equal enthusiasm.  No one cared to take the time from tapping their feet with irritation to hear her joy.  If for no one else, can’t we slow down for the children? Our children.

Hours later, I found myself in the pharmacy waiting for an antibiotic to be filled for DJ. There was an older woman also waiting. She was really sweet to DJ, offering her Kleenex, and asking her to demo how the hand sanitizer dispenser worked (since DJ had mastered it, and was basically building snowmen out of foam).  This woman was entertained by DJ’s vast vocabulary and animated storytelling.  She told me that she used to be a kindergarten teacher.  I was impressed by her interest and engagement with DJ, and felt a twinge of relief that not everyone was in a hurry. And then, out of nowhere, she abruptly stood up from her chair and said, “You know, I have groceries in the car. It’s sure a good thing I didn’t buy ice cream. What on earth is taking so long?!?!” I just had to laugh.

Slow down, people.  If we can all agree to doing this, then we just might be able to save Christmas.

Scrimmage

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Posted by David Maddalena | Posted in Anghelika and David Maddalena | Posted on 02-12-2013

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We’ve often observed our kids, who are now 17 and 20, going through seasons of growth and coping, and we’ve used different kinds of language to describe the experience: mood swings, expansion and contraction, equilibrium and disequalibrium. Anghelika describes the way a child can feel stretched and challenged in uncomfortable ways by a world that seems too big, and then soon after can come to a place of feeling more comfortable ‘in their skin’. When children are being challenged and stretched, it can be hard times for families.

We have been through innumerable such cycles with our children. We’ve suffered through the tense times when our child seems to hate everything, wants no help, chooses to be alone. These are terrible times, because, of course, she can’t be alone—she lives with you. And she can’t really go without help, because she’s dependent. And when someone you live with “hates” everything, that’s kind of a downer, because you’re going to be collateral damage. We found these times really hard, and we celebrated the return to equilibrium. As we learned a bit about how these things worked, we began to ‘tolerate’ the down times because we knew that better times were coming. But what if we were missing an opportunity to celebrate the hard times too?

After twenty years of parenting we can say that family is a lifestyle of challenge and change. Family is not a formula to master, or a parenting book to finish, or some season to get through. It’s life: we change our children and they change us. In our experience, families (our own included) tend to get labeled … as healthy or unhealthy, functional or dysfunctional. But looking back, no family qualifies exclusively for a single prize. Family is not a race where you either win or you don’t. It’s a scrimmage, where every player gets a little better by the end of the day … and gets a few bruises to help them remember the day’s drills.

We might have been too quick to wish our way past the bad-mood days. We might have taken them too personally, as a sign of our faulty parenting, or of a child’s rebellion against our ideals. Even when we recognized that it wasn’t about us, we might have looked forward to a child ‘getting over it’ so we could be a “happy family” again. But we are starting to recognize that families are not supposed to be … anything really. They are not validated by the amount of happiness enjoyed by its members, or by any other ideal. They are a place where life happens, and that means whatever we bring to the party, that’s the life we are going to have on this day, and the family that we are. And if we can accept that family is not some ideal that we have to achieve, but is the very mechanism by which we will grow together (yes, toward our ideals), then we may embrace the struggles as the way we all, parents and children alike, get better at living this life. To look at it another way, family holds us together when we might otherwise drift apart in trying times: it’s a mechanism of love.

If we could go back and give our younger selves advice, we’d say, for every lesson you think you need to teach your child, there is probably a lesson or two you need to learn yourself, so slow down and don’t be in such a hurry to fix the problem of the day. A child in distress, in rebellion, or in a bad mood, is not an obstacle on your path to a perfect family. On the contrary: this is what families are perfect for. Responding in love and patience when one of us is in danger of falling away.

Beat Up

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Posted by Gina Perkins, Pre-School Mommie | Posted in Gina Perkins | Posted on 08-11-2011

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I am eating a piece of See’s candy as I sit down to write this.  Let me justify this food choice by making the following declarations: 1) Prior to opening the box of See’s, I polished off an entire bunch of steamed rainbow chard, and 2) My child has been nothing short of absolute hell on Crocs.  Do I feel entitled?  Yes, absolutely.

Now onto my second piece of See’s….I don’t know what has hit our house, but I can tell you for certain, it isn’t “Peace,” nor “Harmony.”  DJ has decided that both sleep and reasoning are over-rated.  Put the two together, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.  I have never felt so physically taxed and emotionally drained.  After last night’s episode, I woke up feeling hung-over this morning….without any of the regrets or incriminating photos.

Last night easily goes down as one of our worst evenings ever.  While I understand that DJ is in the profession of testing her boundaries, I cannot say that I have the managerial skills required to mitigate this phase.  Lucky for her, God seems to have given me an extra dose of patience – and that has been my only defense against this Tasmanian devil living under my roof.  She flat out rejects every.single.one of my requests/suggestions/demands, and in last night’s exercise of independence, DJ refused to get into the bath.

Her original objection to getting into the tub was because she wanted to “do it.”  (Meaning, I am not permitted to assist her, in any way, as she climbs headfirst into the porcelain lagoon).  She wants to do absolutely everything herself these days, and I am starting to learn that “I do it” is her version of a threat.  If I don’t comply, then she will punish me with some ludicrous behavior – like a crying, screaming, kicking, hair-pulling fit that lasts way too long.  So, last night, when I lost all of that extra patience I was just bragging about, and I began “encouraging” her to plunge more quickly into the bath – all bets were off.

What ensued for the next hour was a long tirade against me, the floor, the bathroom, her stuffed animals, her fine blonde hair, etc.  She just kept repeating, “I don’t want to take bath.  I want to take bath. I don’t want to take bath.  I want to take bath. I don’t want to take bath.  I want to take bath. I don’t want to take bath.  I want to take bath. I don’t want to take bath.  I want to take bath. I don’t want to take bath.  I want to take bath. I don’t want to take bath.  I want to take bath. I don’t want to take bath.  I want to take bath. I don’t want to take bath.  I want to take bath.”

If I weren’t so darn frustrated, I might’ve felt a little heartbroken over her indecision.  I mean, can you imagine being trapped inside a body, that was being led by a mind that literally changed course every half a second?  (And, if you think the above repetitious sentences were annoying to read – and you took the luxury of skipping ahead – just think about what it felt like to be trapped in it, for real, with no way out!)

My mom happened to be over for this little episode.  When DJ finally fell asleep, and I emerged from her bedroom over an hour later, my mom said “It stressed me out so much to hear her cry like that, that I almost had to leave the house.”  Trust me, mom, that feeling is nothing foreign to me…..except, I have to hang in there. I have no choice but to ride the emotional rollercoaster with my toddler.

Despite feeling literally beat up by my child after these types of incidents (which seem to be happening all too often lately), I must admit to a grand sense of achievement once the storm passes and the calm is restored.  It makes me feel like a really good mom when I’m able to navigate through the rough waters while acting in a loving, supportive and controlled manner.  (And honestly, I will take self-administered pats on the back whenever, and wherever, I can!).

One thing I left off – in between the grand finale of her tantrum, and me escaping her wrath, DJ rolled over and said, “I so sawdy (sorry) Mommy.  Hold me in your arms.  I love you. I so tired now.”  And that, my friends, just goes to show that my sweet little girl hasn’t gone anywhere at all….she’s just going through the motions of growing.  A beautiful reminder of why it pays to love our kids through their ugliest moments – always knowing they will desperately need us on the other side.