The Community School of West Seattle
The Community School of West Seattle (CSWS) brings alive the true meaning and value of LEARNING through PLAY. Children are ‘designed’ by nature to play. Play is also the most concrete way for children to learn. If a child’s first experience with learning is joyful then it will become a life long pursuit. Learning is happening all the time for children and we respect the way each child learns. Fundamental to our approach is building relationships; this allows us to connect with each individual child while also welcoming them into a community. Another important aspect of our program is the classroom environment. We provide an enriched environment and often refer to it as ‘The third teacher’. The staff spends a great deal of time assessing, planning and arranging the environment to promote and facilitate a child’s natural interest in the world around them. A term we use to describe our educational philosophy is Organic Education. In a more traditional setting subjects are removed from life in order to ‘teach’ them. At CSWS we incorporate them so that children may learn organically and in the moment. For example, a child having snack is not only participating in a social experience, but often the conversation turns to math, “how many pieces of apple does Katie have?” As well as nutrition (fruit is good for your whole body) geography (where do apples grow) science (is it sweet or sour?) A skilled teacher can provide the bridging activities necessary to make these connections. The result is relevant, real life learning through actual life experience. Everything children experience is a learning experience. The environment, the activities, the materials even the books and puzzles on the shelf are purposely chosen and designed to enhance, support and inspire Organic Education.
Emergent Curriculum & The Project Approach
The CSWS Pre-School programs draw from a variety of progressive and traditional thoughts on education. Two that are extremely influential to us
are Emergent Curriculum and The Project Approach. We often say ‘the children are the curriculum’. When the staff and children work cooperatively, for example; a child finds a bug and shows everyone, the teacher asks “what kind of bug is it?. The child doesn’t know so the teacher facilitates that discovery by finding a bug book to look through. They discover it’s an ant. Innocently the child asks “but where are the other ants?” This then turns into a two-day investigation of ants. The teacher continues to facilitate with new books, a counting activity using plastic ants and stories about ants and bugs. Art projects, like a paper mache ant hill and clay ants. This is Emergent Curriculum and the Project Approach in action. Paying attention to what children are interested in. It’s not planned in advance but the teacher has planned for the spontaneity. Emergent/Project Curriculum is not forcibly directed but facilitated and guided by the teacher and child. It is purposeful, intentional, and meaningful and offers the deepest connection to learning because it comes from a very REAL interest from the child and/or the teacher. Once an idea has emerged it turns into a Project. These can go on for days/weeks even months and include a continuous back and forthedness between the teacher and child to ask questions, discover further questions and gain a deeper insight in to the project at hand. A Project has to be on a real topic of interest from the child but also that is immediately available to all the children in the classroom. For example we wouldn’t use the stars as a topic because you can’t touch them and you have to have expensive equipment to study them, although we might talk about the stars and wonder about them. But we would study trees or birds if that emerged as an interest. They are all around us; you don’t need anything other than the ‘tools of investigation’ (clip boards, pencils, paper and your own observations) and everyone has something to share about a tree or a bird, we’ve all had experiences either seeing them or touching them or being around them, whether inside or out. This way everyone has something to offer to the subject even if they are not that interested in going deep in to that particular topic.
This is what we mean by Organic Education. It’s REAL. It moves, is fluid, has a direction and purpose, is flexible and spontaneous but intentional, it takes turns and directions as yet unknown, stimulates thought and emotion, motivates and inspires both children and adults and it’s just like LIFE.
In the CSWS Pre-School Program we:
Provide an educational environment. This means that we set-up an environment that supports a child’s natural desire to learn and offer materials that inspire any number of creative and educational experiences. It looks a lot like ‘play’, and it is in many ways, but we offer purposely enhanced and facilitated play with a variety of equipment that is designed to stimulate creativity, thoughtful exploration, problem solving and small motor ability. The materials are made available in an attractive presentation, which fosters respect for the classroom environment. It is quite apparent to anyone with a young child that they like to move, so we make exciting and plentiful opportunities for movement in and around the classroom, on the playground, dancing, or the occasional yoga class. All the while, we are integrating the fundamentals for young children, which include an introduction to print, colors, shapes, letters of their name, numbers, and most importantly the social skills that help nurture healthy relationships for life.
Support and assist each child with social and emotional growth and development so that they can better meet their own needs and in the future, they are capable of meeting the needs of others. Not only is the physical environment safe but we also pay special attention to providing emotional safety by building relationships with each family and child, using compassionate communication to connect on a more intimate level and assuring that each member of our school community is heard, validated and welcomed. We spend a great deal of our time helping children work through problems. The reason we focus on creative problem solving is that it is by far the most important aspect of a group environment, learning to “be” together. Yet there is a balance between ones own needs and that of the group. The staff stays aware of both these important elements. They offer guidance and support to each child while they are working it out together; it’s not just the teacher telling the child what to do. We want the children to have the opportunity to be creative in their solutions, and while the resolution may not be what we would have done, the important thing is that they worked it out together and that will help them in forming a more meaningful relationship as well as reassuring them that they are capable of conflict resolution. Our favorite tool for guidance is Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson. All of our staff is trained in this work.
Nurture life long learning by trusting and respecting children. Humans are designed to acquire knowledge. As children, we acquire it through play and interaction with caring adults. Hands on experiences allow children to make the physical and mental connections so important to the human expereince. These come naturally from play. Watch a child scribble and then miraculously they recognize a shape on the page as a letter and then it’s the letter at the start of their name and that same letter is in signs they see around town, learning is contagious! Children are always learning. It never stops. We feed that fire with interesting, relevant and developmentally appropriate opportunities and a staff who will support and guide them in a loving and nurturing way. At CSWS we trust in the human experience and that each person, given an enriched, nurturing and intentional environment, at school AND at home will enjoy a life long love of learning.
How the CSWS Pre-School Program supports learning:
Math includes putting out attractive things to count, sort and classify. Children have a more concrete understanding that 10 pennies are more than 3 pennies when they see it and feel it. The snack table is one of our favorite math activities. Children often count and sort their snack and we make a point to ask questions like, “If Emma eats 6 of her pretzels how many will she have left?” It usually only takes one question and then the children ask each other questions or they practice edible subtraction by themselves! We use the correct mathematical terms (more than, less than, equal to, divide, subtract etc…) so that this language becomes a part of their everyday experiences. We add the use of graphs and charts and make full use of the increased awareness of numbers and how math can help us figure out all kinds answers to our questions. Math is still integrated into something real so that children feel connected to it and it has direct relevance to them.
In our classrooms it looks like measuring, pouring, filling and dumping in the sensory table, the sand box or in the kitchen. We might measure how much rain fell or how big the tower of blocks has become. We want children to be able to question things in the way scientists do. Why doesn’t all this sand fit in this bottle but is able to fit into this bucket? How does the water make the wheel go round? I wonder what will happen if….It is from these experiences that children answer their own questions and more importantly come up with new ones. Activities such as making play dough and moon mud provide perfect opportunities to see science in action. When I mix this with that, what do you think will happen? Children get to think about the outcome and then actually experience it, reflect on their thoughts and discuss the experience with their friends and with you at home. As the children get older we take this a step further by writing down their observations, making record of the outcomes and asking them ‘why’ they think something happened. We spend a lot of time talking about the way things work, why something happened and what was discovered. We want to get children to really ‘think’ about things and to ask lots of questions. We also want them to make their own discoveries so we go out into our community to look around for ourselves to see what we can see.
Reading and writing are also skills that are naturally supported through enriched play exploration. Young children are building the dexterity to be able to perform the physical task of reading and writing. They do this with small motor experiences like puzzles, lacing and drawing with a pencil, even riding a bike helps promote good coordination which in turn helps the brain organize its functions. When a child’s body is growing in the early years (under age 8) the signal between the brain and the body is not yet refined. The body is impulsive, things happen spontaneously. When a child’s body tells her it needs to move, she needs to move NOW and does not have the maturity or experience to know that she may be able to move it at a later time! This is one reason that reading and writing should not be forced onto children before they are DEVELOPMENTALLY able to perform the task, because it puts unnecessary stress on the brain and does not allow for those connections to occur according to its own blueprint. At CSWS we nurture and support the child’s natural curiosity around reading and writing. Most children LOVE to sit and listen to stories being read to them, and we do that often, sometimes in small groups, sometimes one on one and it is so delightful to see a child ‘read’ to another child. Even though they may not actually be ‘reading’ the words they are doing the ‘act’ of reading and that is the first step towards fostering a love for reading. As children turn 4 and 5 there is a much higher interest in letters because these children are starting to make connections to the outside world and not just the one directly in front of them. Developmentally they are ready to explore what other people do, how things work in the world and how they fit into that. People in the world use words to communicate and it is only natural that a child would want to do that too. So the materials and opportunities provided follow this interest with a print rich environment (lots of words posted) easy to read books, large moveable letters, quiet reading and writing areas with plentiful supplies of pencils and paper and a variety of ways to engage in such activity through play, like taking orders at the restaurant, writing notes to friends, charting favorite colors and pets and reading the calendar or playing post office. This along with the addition of explicit instruction for our soon to be kindergartners makes the acquisition of such knowledge exciting and special. Our 4 and 5 year olds go in small groups with our Language Arts teacher to be given a short direct instruction lesson using the research based curriculum Get Set For SchoolŪ, created by the Handwriting Without TearsŪ group. These lessons allow children to have a small group, teacher directed experience in listening, following directions, good pencil grip and putting pen to paper to make specific shapes and letters not just random drawing. It is very exciting for the children and they can’t wait to get their ‘workbooks’!
The Studio is an exceptional opportunity for children to communicate with the world and to process experiences in a way that words can not yet do for a young child. The staff is purposeful in using language that opens up communication and critical thinking. Such as, “Tell me about the colors you used?” or “I’m curious about this part up here, can you tell me more about it?” We encourage children to look for their own internal approval of their creative expression. The value of the work should only be determined by their experience. When a child asks us “do you like this?” we return with an observation such as “you seem really excited about your drawing” so that the focus can return to their own experience. Art is a very personal experience even at a young age and we are careful not to belittle the experience as just “a cute thing to do”. You’ll never get precut, prearranged work that looks like everyone else’s from here. That’s not art, that’s doing what your told, there is a time and a place for that but the Studio is not one of them! We are also careful not to miss the simple joy of splashing paint on paper and walking away. We know that that moment was all it needed to be. It’s not a masterpiece or a waste of paper. It was a valid experience for that child in that moment. In addition to the self service classroom activities, we have created a beautiful Studio space which is at the heart, literally in the center of our building. We are able to have an even more in depth experience with planned projects that have been inspired by the children’s interests and an open Studio with a multitude of sensory experiences and mediums to explore..
Much of what happens in the studio falls under the definition of small motor activity. Cutting, gluing, tearing, sorting, using tape, painting, molding clay etc…This type of activity helps build the small muscles in the fingers and hands, as well as strengthen eye hand coordination, eye muscles, build concentration, critical thinking and communication, all of which are necessary pre-reading and writing experiences.
Some things you will see in the Pre-School classrooms:
• People-of all ages- having FUN
• Involved and detailed make believe play-including drama, puppets and story telling
• Dressing up
• The chance to self select the areas they work and play in as well as the opportunity to join focused group and individual activities
• Music, singing, dancing, using a variety of instruments and at any given time during the day
• Activities that promote critical thinking
• Modeling and nurturing empathy, compassion and inclusion
• Supporting and welcoming individuality and diversity
• Problem solving techniques that facilitate conflict resolution peacefully and cooperatively
• Responsibility for the classroom/school environment
• Lots of talking, discussions and questions
• Parents & volunteers
• Activities that support a child’s interest of colors and shapes
• A variety of opportunities to interact with letters and numbers including; books, informative posters, writing materials, movable letters, letters and numbers to sort and move about
• Activities that promote name recognition, names on cubbies and labels and pictures
• Activities that promote writing, like painting large shapes, drawing small shapes and lots and lots of cutting with scissors, small pens and pencils and clipboards available
• Inviting supplies/materials/games to work with that are developmentally appropriate and offer a challenge as well as the chance to feel capable by using familiar materials
• An introduction to phonetic awareness-knowing that each letter has a sound and being able to sound them out, particularly the ones in their name and common combinations
• Lots of movement
• A sense of community
The Community School of West Seattle offers each child a solid foundation on which to build a lifetime of fulfilling and meaningful education. It is our intention that children who attend our Pre-school classes will be able to integrate into any educational environment with an intact love for learning, self confidence and the necessary academic skills they need to continue on in their educational journey, whether that is home schooling, public school or private education.
The Community School of West Seattle is dedicated to supporting the rights of children. We believe educating parents about the real value of this type of structured play and making the connection visible that children are LEARNING ALL THE TIME is crucial to creating an educational system that serves ‘children’s’ best interests. We work hard to establish relationships with each child (and you!) so that they can feel free to be themselves in this community. It is these connections and relationships that will allow children to feel safe with us and when children feel safe the brain is wide open. Marvelous education happens when children play in an enriched and nurturing environment like the one we are creating here at the Community School.
If you should have any questions please feel free to call us anytime. We can set an observation so you can come with your child to experience the class, talk by phone or you can email us from our web site www.communityschoolwestseattle.org
We look forward to connecting with your family