In 2014, Betsy wrote a series of posts on writing in preschool. As the mother of a preschooler, I’ve revisited her posts several times. Now that I’m volunteering in the writing center of my daughter’s preschool classroom once a week, I’m rereading them with a new lens. Betsy’s preschool series was not only informative about the ways to teach writing to three- and four-year-olds, but it conveyed a deep and genuine respect for our youngest learners.
I’m throwing back to Betsy’s very first preschool series post, “In the Beginning… Writing in Preschool” below. If you’re a preschool teacher (or the family member of a preschooler) who would like to read the rest of her series, you can also check out Writing in Preschool. Where Does It All Fit?, Writing in Preschool: Scope and Sequence, and Writing in Preschool: Questions and Answers.
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.
Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.