writing workshop

In The Beginning…Writing in Preschool

Story. Something children understand better than we realize. It is sometimes extracting these stories that poses a challenge. Like all things when educating children, it begins with your relationships. In order for students to be open to sharing these stories they have to feel safe.

Vivian Gussin Paley, a leader in early childhood education said, “Children’s play helps them focus on common problems in the format they know best: story,” when she was interviewed for an article in the September 2011 edition of Young Children. A National Association of the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) publication.

She also goes on to say, “Once you begin to depend on storytelling and story acting, you start looking at your classroom as theater.”

Theater? Yes. When students are given the time to do their work (play) they are able to verbally write story after story.

This is where I believe the writer begins. As a toddler exploring the world, we are experiencing stories all around us. We grow, we speak and begin communicating our messages more clearly. Our writing begins with these ideas, content and story. It doesn’t begin with a pencil in our hand but instead much earlier. We begin paving the way of a writer when our eyes open up for the first time and we breathe in this life, our stage, our theater to write our dramatic beginnings. We begin our story.

That leads me to children and their first school experiences. Often preschool is the first formal school children attend. Generally there are three types of preschools, play-centered, academic and exploratory. Each one holding philosophies that grow children ready for success. I could begin to debate one over the other, but I truly believe that each has wonderful opportunities for children and their growing minds. However, one concern is the push for MORE academics in preschool. I’m not talking about the good kind that children gravitate toward when they play in the writing center. I’m talking formal instruction, spelling, letter drilling and play killing kinds of philosophies. There has long been a debate about the importance of play, but I truly believe that all people, including policy makers and administrators, would rather put their child in a preschool that used a play approach to learning. The question is where is the balance between appeasing those policy makers and administrators while fostering the development of children? I wish I had all the answers. No one really does. But I can offer this, it is simpler than it appears and sometimes that is what gets confusing for those who hold places of power within the education of our little ones. When something appears simple it may not appear rigorous. But, if you have ever seen children at play building a block tower as tall as their body, steadying it, carefully balancing each block you can’t tell me there isn’t rigor in the thinking and patience that comes with that.

The balance is that play and academics can live together and share a bond that provides all kinds of opportunities for its seekers. I say seekers because we naturally seek out ways to learn. As children, when given few materials, a stick and sand, we will draw and write squiggles. When given shaving cream on a table top, we will curiously go through the motions of writing. When allowed to explore our surroundings amazing things can happen. As teachers, it is the surroundings that we have control of and creating a safe theatrical story filled environment is how we build the writers inside our students.

Currently, I don’t teach preschool. My first experiences as a teacher began with the BEST preschool teachers I have ever encountered and their approach to learning is what has given me the base to always have an interest in these small children. It has been nine years since I taught preschool and many things have changed. This is why I have taken the opportunity to get to know the preschool teacher in my building and her students over the past two years. Visiting her classroom on a near weekly basis has helped me tap back into what it means to be a preschool writer and what things I would do differently now after seeing what students grow up to be when they enter kindergarten and first grade.

What would I do now to build story in my writers in my perfect dream of a preschool?

  • Set up my routine so there is always a time to talk, as a group and individually. These students are still in a world of their own and it is hard to see outside of their egocentric selves but when a story is shared it can light a spark in another child.
  • Have a peace table/center. A place to talk about problems and solutions when dealing with peer conflict. Let’s face it; there is a lot of story in peer conflict. Begin a classroom journal where students can draw and write with teacher dictation and support about the conflict. This can then be referred back to when undoubtedly the conflict arises again. I see class meetings born out of this journal.
  • Have writing materials in every part of the room. Label making materials for students to label their work. Sign making materials so the most recently opened “restaurant” can be named. Booklets, staplers (train them cautiously and use your judgment with this one) and paper of all kinds (shapes, sizes, lined, unlined, scrap, color, white, stationary, old cards).
  • Chart paper and easel for their use. Vertical surfaces are great for students writing muscles and development. Chart paper, markers and an easel offer this option.
  • Clipboards with baskets of paper on the floor. Another great place for children to write is while laying all the way down on their bellies. (I know, if you’ve read previous posts of mine I’ve said this at least three times, it works)!
  • A drawing area with drawing models and books for students to engage in and try out drawing techniques with basic shapes.
  • I would also have a comment table, wall space or board of some sort with LOTS of sticky notes for children to write messages for me and the other teachers or adults that frequent the classroom.
  • Puppets, fingerplay song charts, song books, fairy tale story books, dress-up materials and anything magical. Can you imagine the stories that would be played here?

Now, is it realistic that I could do all this, maybe not, but a teacher can dream right? What I would tell you is try something new that brings stories to life in your preschool classroom. Recognize them, address the child and tell them they are a story maker, a writer!

Come back next Saturday when I share more on the topic of preschool writers and later in the month I will address questions posed by readers.

8 thoughts on “In The Beginning…Writing in Preschool

  1. Love this! I totally agree that play cultivates “the writer” in a preschooler. Love your line – “Recognize them, address the child and tell them they are a story maker, a writer!” I am continually asking, “How does your story begin?” – and the children love to act these out, draw and paint pictures to support, and to hear their story read aloud later to the whole class. I think your ideas about the ideal preschool are right on the mark!


  2. Thank you, Betsy, for bringing preschool teachers to the table. I’ve been an early childhood teacher for over 30 years and have seen the pendulum swing back and forth. I began in co-op preschool and am now in a school district partnership with Head Start. Play is work for these young students and the teacher is the key to making children aware of the rigorous academics they are pursuing in the midst of it. My collaboration of colleagues has been working with David Matteson and his emergent writing ideas for 6 years now and I can say emphatically, my students know about writing – more importantly, they know about story.
    I’m looking forward to the conversation you have started here.


  3. After looking at six preschools, we finally picked one for Isabelle last week. The school values play, which I truly believe is the work of preschoolers. (Not sure if you saw this when I wrote it, http://raisealithuman.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/play-a-young-childs-work, but I know you’ll appreciate it.) Another thing I liked about the class she’ll be in are the journals the kids keep. They’re large pieces of construction paper that reflect the stories the children draw and write. (It’s a 3-5 year-old class so some kids are actually writing while others are drawing and having their stories transcribed.) I loved the fact that storytelling was valued by this teacher. No other school showed me the kid’s writing, so as you can imagine, that was a good selling point for me!

    Looking forward to the rest of your series.


  4. I have recently concluded that storytelling is a critically important piece of the foundation we build for early literacy, particularly in our digital age..It is what moves us from speech to writing and writing to reading. If we don’t build this oral language base in preK and K, we lose precious potential. Paley’s storytelling and acting contributes wonderfully to this base , as does Fleur Griffith’s Talking Tables. I’ve recently “rehabbed” an old shirt with lots of pockets to place “story starters”, little objects that can poke out and engage children in the process at a Talking Table.Thanks for the spotlight on this age group!


  5. Betsy, I think you have shared some great ideas for preschool teachers here! As a kindergarten teacher I wish all my students came from a preschool that valued writing in the ways you have suggested. You have also made me think…sometimes we as teachers need to back each other more and push against those who don’t see the rigor in block towers and the value of telling stories through dramatic play. I loved this piece and I am looking forward to more throughout the month.


  6. Betsy,
    You have shared so many great ideas about the ideal preschool…I hope to share some of them with Natalie’s preschool teachers as she will be transitioning to the preschool room over the next few weeks!


  7. I am in my 40th year of teaching having taught mostly kindergarten, and spent five years in preschool. We are beginning to see the beginning of the ipad/iphone generation, and I worry about children developing stamina to write after the ease of swiping a screen. By this point in the year they are beginning to understand the satisfaction of putting marks on paper, but it has taken a while.


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