By Chloe Learey, Executive Director
We may not want to face it, but the school year is right around the corner. This brings excitement, worries, and a multitude of activities in preparation.
What does it mean to be ready for school? It is not just making sure children have the supplies they may need like a backpack and lunch box, new pencils and crayons, or a calculator and notebooks for higher grades. It is about making sure they have the internal tools they need to succeed, like taking turns, identifying and sharing feelings, and listening to others. It is also about understanding and supporting environments to be safe, stable, and nurturing both at home and school so that children can develop and access those tools. “School readiness” is a primary outcome stated in many initiatives in the early childhood realm, including the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant Vermont received a few years ago, and the “Preschool Development Expansion Grant” recently awarded. It is a worthy outcome and even more helpful to see it broadly as ‘life readiness’ or ‘ready for school and beyond.’
Learning in early childhood is happening all the time, not just during certain times of the day. Rapid brain development means that children are making sense of the world through all their interactions and relationships, from mealtime to settling for nap, from reading to how they are given guidance. If a teacher yells “Stop doing that!” from across a room, what lessons does a child learn? If a teacher approaches a child at eye level and says “Tell me what you are doing” and follows up with “I am worried that you might hurt someone if you keep swinging that truck, what can we do to be safe”, what does the child learn? Some families worry about their child being able to write their letters and numbers when they enter kindergarten, and some even want their children to be able to read. Recently I spoke with a local kindergarten teacher and she shared that social emotional skills are one of the most important pieces of school readiness. A child who can communicate, connect with others, resolve conflict, cope with challenges, and show kindness and empathy is one who will be available for academic learning. Certainly, developing reading, math and science skills are part of early childhood education. Access to books and writing, opportunities for sorting and counting, activities to explore cause and effect are hallmarks of a high-quality early learning environment. But they miss the mark if viewed as an end in and of themselves.
Understanding that learning is always happening during the earliest years highlights the fact that the community at large is a classroom during this critical time of development. It is exciting to think of ways we might all participate in that education intentionally. For instance, The Basics is a framework that offers simple suggestions about how places like a grocery store or a laundry mat can become a place of learning by posting signs about counting and comparing fruit, or having books available to read while waiting for your clothes to dry. The Basics also helps us understand why supporting families is such an important part of the puzzle, and resources which help them ‘maximize love and manage stress’ also contribute to school readiness. These resources range from breastfeeding support to financial assistance for childcare to parenting classes to help finding housing. When we take care of families with young children, we help children be ready for school.
I worry about the pressure to make early childhood education more academic, like sitting at desks and doing worksheets, and considering 10-hours a week of public preschool as when ‘real’ learning is happening. I am heartened to hear from a kindergarten teacher that play-based learning is still a priority, and that building community is a desired primary outcome along with achieving academic milestones. We will have more children ready for and successful in life because of it.