Why Preschool? Discussing the Purpose and Possibilities of Early Learning

Whenever I’m asked what I do for a living, my response is pretty straightforward: “I teach preschool.”

Over the years, I’ve found that this elicits some of the same responses over and over, including:

“What can you even teach kids that young?”

And, my personal favorite,

“Ohhhh fun! So you do lots of fun arts and crafts all day?!”  

In all seriousness, I completely understand where these thoughtful and well-intentioned reactions come from. Aside from surface level assumptions, I know nothing about what it takes to be a lawyer (or a nurse, or a police officer, or a business owner, etc), so I wouldn’t expect an individual removed from the field of child development to fully understand all that really goes in to teaching preschool.

But, I do think it is necessary for those of us in the field to continue to educate parents (and future parents) about why preschool is more (way more) than painting and counting.

That is my goal with this blog. To share a bit more insight into what preschool is and why it is so important for children to have a high quality preschool experience.

Research shows us that early experiences have the potential to heavily influence a child’s developing brain. We know that for each individual child, brain development is influenced by interactions between their genes (what is predetermined and part of their given DNA) and their environment (the ever changing world around them).

Knowing this, as a preschool teacher, my job is to create an environment rich in opportunities to nurture my students’ social, cognitive, language, and physical development through exposing them and their developing brains to a variety of experiences. I spend quite a bit of my time in the classroom carefully watching and playing with my students. I do this because everything they do in their behavior and play tells me something about how their brain is growing and learning. As I learn more about my students, I can think ahead to what classroom experiences may be needed to further nurture their growth.

One of the most fascinating things about working with young children is seeing how each child responds to the same environmental stimuli in different ways. By “environmental stimuli,” this mean the language we as teachers use, how we choose to say things, the materials we make available to them, and the incidental learning experiences that we work to create.

For example, at the moment my classroom “Dramatic Play” center is set up as a doctor’s office. It’s filled with various doctor tools, a set of long white doctor’s coats, an examination table, and even little sheets of paper where the kiddos can “check in” as patients. While the aesthetic goal is for this setup to appear cute and inviting for the kids, the intention goes far beyond that.

My co-teacher and I created a space where our students can practice using the new doctor-themed vocabulary words they have learned. They can build their fine motor skills by practicing to pinch the play tweezers. They practice interacting with each other by sharing the roles of “doctor” and “patient.” They practice waiting for and taking turns with the most preferred doctor toys (for this group, that would be the stethoscopes). They work through emotions when inevitably (as it happens in preschool), the preferred toys are grabbed away, and they practice resolving social conflicts with each other in these moments. Our Dramatic Play center is intentionally set up to create all of these experiences, and more.

And yes, we do daily arts and crafts in preschool. But when I’m developing the arts and crafts that my preschoolers will work on, I’m not necessarily thinking of how cute the outcome will be. Rather, I’m considering the experiences my students will gain by exploring and manipulating certain art materials.

As we watch our students play and learn, we gain valuable insight into their individual growth. We learn what parts of our day to tweak in order to support and challenge each child’s needs.

In a preschool classroom, no child is ever the same. No child’s needs are ever the same. No child’s reaction and interaction with the classroom materials is ever the same. My role as a preschool teacher is to love, accept, and nurture each child with the ultimate goal of setting them up for success in school (and life) in the years to come.

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