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Lessons to build on

Play, hands-on learning during pre-K lay groundwork for children’s success in school and life
New York Teacher

Students use blocks to build a cityscape under the watchful eye of pre-K teacher
Miller Photography

Students use blocks to build a cityscape under the watchful eye of pre-K teacher Helen Chan.

Crowded around their growing block tower, the children paused to examine their creation. After reading Aesop’s “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,” they had been tasked with using their classroom’s large collection of wooden blocks to design the chaotic, sprawling city of the fable.

“What other things would you see in a city?” their teacher prompted.

“We need train tracks,” said Jordan.

Literacy teacher Noelle O’Reilly helps three 4-year-olds set the table for dinne
Miller Photography

Literacy teacher Noelle O’Reilly helps three 4-year-olds set the table for dinner at the country mouse’s house after reading Aesop’s “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse.”

At the other end of the large block area, another group was busily constructing the country mouse’s habitat. As Sophia loaded miniature farm animals into the barn, Chaska carefully set up a row of cylindrical blocks and then topped them with half-circles.

“Look,” he said to his teacher proudly. “Trees!”

In Helen Chan’s full-day prekindergarten classroom at PS 361, the Children’s Workshop School in the East Village, the block area is a major focal point.

“Kids are natural builders,” said Chan, who has been teaching pre-K at the school for 12 years. “They learn about shapes, they learn about architecture. The blocks keep falling, and you see them trying to figure out why. There’s so much learning in that.”

In Chan’s classroom, as in any high-quality prekindergarten program, learning and play are deeply intertwined. Through a curriculum that combines early academic skills with social, emotional and physical learning activities, pre-K helps children build the knowledge they’ll need for kindergarten.

“Pre-K should be about having fun, learning and being challenged,” says Chan.

For Chan’s 18 students, each day follows a similar rhythm.

After printing their names on a “sign-in” sheet, Chan’s students begin the morning with a class meeting. Much of their math curriculum is woven through their daily conversations about attendance, the calendar and the weather.

“If we have 15 children today, do we have more kids in school today than we did yesterday?” asks Chan as the children study their daily attendance graph.

Miller Photography

A child concentrates as she draws on the daily weather chart.

Later, paraprofessional Ileana Rivera leads the group as they count by 10s and then by fives to 87, the number of days they have been in school.

“We’re almost to 100!” notes Jordan with delight.

After the meeting, the class participates in a literacy lesson. Chan and the school’s literacy teacher, Noelle O’Reilly, collaborate to modify lessons from the EngageNY prekindergarten ELA curriculum; this month, the students are reading fables and other classic tales.

Chan also introduces a letter of the week, which gives students an opportunity to begin making associations between letters and the sounds they make in words. In a favorite class activity, students take turns giving each other clues about vocabulary words that begin with that week’s letter.

“It’s a bird, it lives in the water, and it has webbed feet,” hints Curie before producing two rubber ducks to pass around the circle.

The goal is for students, many of whom know just a few letters when they enter pre-K, to know the whole alphabet — and the associated sounds — by kindergarten, when children begin to learn to read and write.

Midday, the children eat lunch together in the classroom and then, lights dimmed, settle in for rest time. In the afternoon, they choose among a variety of learning stations in center time, which promotes independence, social skills and creativity.

Some children choose to revisit their constructions in the block area; others explore sand at the sand table. Jake, who is cooking a pretend birthday cake for Chan in the kitchen center, giggles to himself as he discusses potential flavors. He’s having fun and learning, too, as he gathers more wooden pegs for his “cake” and decides to alternate colors to create a pattern.

“Everything we do is experiential learning,” says Chan.

Because pre-K is the first school experience for many, socializing with peers and becoming comfortable in a classroom environment plays a major role in preparing them for kindergarten.

Chan notes that at the beginning of the year, the children engage in a lot of “parallel play,” playing side by side without interacting with each other. As the year goes on, she says, “They learn how to share, how to communicate, how to negotiate, how to be a class community.”

The medium is play and hands-on learning; the goal is laying the foundation for the children to thrive in school and in life.

“We’re teaching them independence,” says Chan. “They’re learning how to socialize and how to cooperate. And that really sets them up for the rest of their lives.”