Growing from toddlers to youngsters in a few short months
October 31, 2012, was a monumental day—not because it was Halloween, but because it marked the 29th year to the day that I began teaching kindergarten with the Calgary Board of Education.
Why is it that working with young children makes 29 years feel like a finger snap of time? Maybe the reason I still find teaching so engaging is because children in kindergarten are at a unique stage in their lives. It’s a period when the best qualities of young children blend with their incredible ability to learn.
I asked both my classes to describe their favourite part of kindergarten. Considering the balance of exploration and academics in our play-based classroom, they could have listed any number of favourites. For example, we play math games with manipulatives, and on the Smart Board we use digital cameras to record our exploration of numbers, make patterns, write daily, create stories and do art projects—all typical activities for kindergarten programs. Although I was keen to hear my students’ responses, I wasn’t surprised by what I heard. Without hesitation and regardless of their ability level, gender and parental pressure, their favourite part of kindergarten was social activities, story time and drawing. “I like the house centre because I can dress up and be the teenager or the mom or the baby or the dog,” commented a student. Another blended reality with role-playing and storytelling. The little girl, whose mother had recently had a baby, lay on the floor. Other children brought her food and created a nest of blocks around her. Every day I asked her to share her ideas and every day she had had another baby. Chapter book reading didn’t matter as much to her as role-playing this important time in her life. (Obviously, I missed the opportunity to nap and be fed by a contingent of servants when I had my own children.)
Other favourites were tactile activities. Children love to build things, especially “building with the cups because you can make walls, castles and pyramids,” or with blocks “because you can make whatever you want and put building toys in it,” or even with sand “because you can build castles.”
“I like drawing in my journal,” said one boy. “Me too,” said another, and “writing about your thing.” “I like stories,” said children in each class, and others shouted out in quick succession: “Me too, me too!”
I find it reassuring that by injecting academics into a play environment, children play and learn simultaneously. I observe children writing letters and numbers while playing at various centres, and when I request their presence to create a book or practise a skill, they are only too eager to participate.
I always marvel at how quickly kindergarten children learn. In a few short months, the ones who needed help to print their names were writing independently and recognizing letter sounds. They had learned that the word pattern is not spelled pattren. They could figure out with a partner how to build a small pyramid out of blocks, which led to a team of children filling the entire block centre with a pyramid made of cups. And the children who at the beginning of the year looked helplessly at their mothers for help getting dressed or changing their shoes had learned to do both without any help at all. The swiftness of their growth is both bittersweet and exciting.
In almost 30 years of teaching, I’ve noticed that the biggest jumps in maturity and ability occur in five-year-olds, who seem to leap from toddlerhood to youngsterhood in a few short months. Eureka moments with five-year-olds occur daily.
In my opinion, the best quality of five-year-olds is their ability to play and learn with incredible focus and energy. They view others without prejudice and do not judge a person’s skin colour or choice of clothing. They love each other unconditionally, as long as you say sorry when you knock something over “on purpose.”
Joy de Nance teaches kindergarten at the Hamptons School, a K–4 school in Calgary.