A Gift of Time: Pre-K at Shore

Bill Fisher
Pre-K students at Shore are in some ways much like their older peers in the elementary and middle school grades. They love learning through experiences, they thrive on social connections, they yearn to be outside in exploration or play, and they relish opportunities to be creative and have fun. Yet in many other ways, observes Pre-K lead teacher Beth White, they are quite different, even from children just a year or two ahead in Kindergarten. “Knowing precisely how pre-kindergartners learn best, and what they most need as human beings,” says White, “is what allows us to offer a Pre-K program that’s unique in the region.” Finely attuned to a wide range of developmental levels, Shore’s program helps each child build self-awareness, develop confidence in an academic environment, and discover that their world is full of wonder and opportunities to learn, achieve, and enjoy.

When White describes a typical day in Pre-K to a visitor, she begins with play. “Play time is thinking time for young children. It’s language time, problem-solving time, memory time, investigating time. When children are at play,” she explains, “they use mind, body, and social skills as they encounter and make sense of the world.” As author and kindergarten teacher Vivian Gussin Paley explains it, imaginative play is indeed a survival skill for young children; it is the landscape in which they first practice abstract thinking.

For this reason, physical activity and especially outdoor exploration in nature are built into the structure of every day in Pre-K. From beginning reading and writing skills to math concepts such as number recognition, sequencing, and geometry, tactile activities, manipulative tools and games, and natural elements such as shells, seeds, and stones are core to teaching and learning. Throughout, children practice fine motor skills such as cutting, grouping, pasting, drawing, and writing as they work toward mastery of these critical abilities.

Grounding all teaching and learning in Shore’s Pre-K program is a child-centered approach inspired by the Reggio-Emilia philosophy. “Everything we do is built around inquiry driven by students,” explains White. “Children learn best when they’re investigating their own questions about the world, discussing their own concerns in Circle Time, and learning to express their own thoughts and feelings.” The child-centered, Reggio-inspired approach means that Shore’s program is highly individualized. “We spend a lot of time getting to know each of the children for who they are as learners and who they are as people, and working to individualize everything we do so it matches their unique qualities—both for the child who’s on the cusp of reading, ready for more, and for the one who’s just learning their letters or getting used to being with a group of children in school.” Shore's two-part program, with a Pre-K 1 classroom for the youngest learners and a separate space for those a year older, ensures individualized attention.

Getting comfortable in a school environment is a big part of Pre-K at Shore. Students visit subject-area specialists throughout the week for science, art, Spanish, music, library, outdoor education, physical education, and health. “All of these teachers make up the team of adults that the children get to know and trust,” says White, “and with whom they continue to build relationships as they get older. It’s a community and a culture that helps support these students all along their journey.” Supporting students socially and emotionally is built into the program. “We work with children daily to help them practice working through problems and conflict, become better communicators, share how they’re feeling with their peers, and learn how to listen, identify, and negotiate with others. Social-emotional learning is just as important as academics for us.”

Fellow students are part of a schoolwide network that supports students’ social and emotional well-being. “Shore is unique in the way we’re able to integrate our Pre-K children into the life of the school, bringing them together with teachers and students of all ages for things like House meeting and Big Buddy projects and playtimes. I love walking down the hallway and having an older student greet one of my Pre-K children by name. It’s quite special to have that kind of continuity across age groups, and my students love being recognized by older children and school adults alike.”

As Shore's Head of Lower School, Sara Knox, explains it, “In large measure, the value of our Pre-K program is not just in the stellar curriculum or the custom-designed spaces; it’s in the expansive group of caring adults and older children looking out for well-being of our youngest learners, and building relationships that may last for years. For our Pre-K 1 and 2 students, the advantage in having the gift of one or two full years getting to know the campus, the community, and the culture is tremendous—they enter Kindergarten with such confidence; they’re often the ones who are quicker to grasp bigger concepts. The experience lays the groundwork for their entire Shore career.”

Ensuring families feel connected to the rich world their children experience daily is just as important for Shore’s Pre-K team as teaching and learning in the classroom. “Partnering with parents to bring them into the program is something we relish,” explains White. “We accomplish this through daily newsletters, photos, and videos—communication that’s especially important because children at this age don’t typically tell families 'what they did today.' The materials we share each day provide insight into their world—not only what they’re studying, but who they’re playing with, what kinds of activities interest them, how they’re feeling. It’s a way of making sure families feel part of the Shore community, too.”

For White, teaching Pre-K represents not only the gift of time for her students—time to explore, discover, and grow—but also a gift of her own. “I love coming to school every day, seeing the children invested in their playtime, making new friends, negotiating situations, sharing toys, being with each other, exploring their world indoors and outdoors. For me it’s a gift to witness their joy.”
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    • Pre-K lead teacher Beth White