Julia Steiny: Rich School Opportunities Reduce Poverty of Experience

Giving young children opportunities to invent and play through activities like storytelling can have a remarkable impact on a child’s development.

Today, a 4-year-old charmer we’ll call Jason will tell a story all by himself.  When  Mariposa Pre-School’s Head Teacher, Meghan McDermott asks if I can listen in too, his face lights up like post-rain sunshine.  I double his captive audience.  He likes attention.

Julia Steiny

For two weeks, Mariposa Pre-school in Providence immerses their class of core-urban 4-year-olds in a story.  They read and discuss it for a little over a week.  Then they give it a rest for a day.  McDermott collects props from Mariposa’s wealth of toys available for fantasy play, and assembles the story’s scene on a special table.  Over two days, each child tells the story in his or her own words.  They can fetch another prop if they feel it’s necessary.  The story is now their own.

Jason settles in by handling and talking to himself about the toy props on the table.  He buttons the jacket onto naughty Peter Rabbit and checks the shoes that Peter will lose in his harrowing escape from grumpy old Farmer McGregor, also close at hand.

He starts by waving the Peter doll at us.  “Peter is a rabbit.  Peter squeezes his little body through the gate.”  And he threads the doll through the gate prop.  “He munched at the plant.  The… um… carrot!  And then he eats another.  And then a pepper.”  And so it goes with the doll performing the right tasks.

At Mariposa, kids love being the story-teller.  School staff remind parents to ask for a re-telling at home.  Which gives talkative Jason another chance to recount the drama.

How fun is that?

Well, way fun.  But here’s the kicker:  These re-tellings are a test.  Not the dreary regurgitate-dead-facts kind, but an evaluation of how much children are learning, given the opportunity to display their mastery.

McDermott records each child’s performance on her phone.  These mini-videos help the staff assess the child’s recall of the story, ability to follow the sequence, their growing vocabulary, and confidence at expressing themselves.  The school uses the GOLD Assessment System, which values “remembering and connecting experiences,” while playing down letter and letter-sound recognition which, according to the documentation, has only “moderate correlation with reading in the primary grades.”

I love it.  Piaget, the French psychologist, called the urge to push academic curriculum onto ever younger children “the American disease.”  Instead, enrich their opportunities to be kids.  Kids are hard-wired learners.

Mariposa is one of 6 pilot classrooms in Rhode Island that are part of a federal early-learning grant – so of course they must collect data and have assessments.  That’s what we do these days.  Mind you, assessments are a bad thing only when we use test results like hunting rifles to thin out an over-population of failures.

Actually, schools should be held accountable for offering kids genuine opportunities to do something all by themselves.  Autonomous mastery of a skill feeds self-esteem and love of learning far more effectively than gobs of misguided praise.

Four-year-olds can’t ride bikes by themselves, or write and produce dramatic skits, or complete Eagle Scout projects.  But they can tell coherent stories.  Proficient story-telling is a ancient, valued skill that will serve a lifetime – not that developing expert raconteurs is exactly Mariposa’s goal.

Mariposa’s director, Kristen Greene, explains that while the pre-school is influenced by the Waldorf philosophy and Reggio Emilia methods, “We’re creating something new, with our own curriculum.  But we keep the essential ideas of our influences.  So we teach that the world is a beautiful place.  And that there’s hope of great things.  Children are born ready to learn.  They need opportunities that allow their brains to be well nurtured so they can become confident learners.”

But there’s a scarcity of enriching opportunities in most urban kids’ lives.  Our fear-driven culture keeps kids indoors, away from the neighborhood that used to be their personal world.  Many are cut off entirely from nature.

As are the their families.  Greene says, “Parents tend to be a little afraid of any plaything that does not come out of a box.”

No park or green space surrounds the Wanskuck Boys and Girls Club, where Mariposa is housed.  Inventing encounters with the natural world requires creativity.

For a cold-weather celebration, the staff put a portable fire pit out in the asphalt parking lot, with stumps around it as seats.  Two parents asked if the fire itself was real.  The kids wouldn’t go near it.  Their only direct experience with fire might have been a burning building.  Slowly, the staff’s trusting relationships with the families drew everyone into a warm huddle around the fire.

Similarly, Greene wrote a grant for a bus to take them to Roger Williams Park four times a year.  The kids and as many of their family members as can go spend the day outside, with trees and ponds and a hill to roll down.  While staff helped kids see the world around them, the parents were wowed by the color of the azaleas just coming into bloom.  They looked with new eyes at the natural world.  Hopefully, now they’ll want to get out to explore parks and nature with their kids.

These opportunities boost learning.  Research says so.  Soaking up the glories of nature sparks scientific curiosity.

And becoming a pre-school story-teller builds confidence in communication.  Just ask Jason.  He has a story he’d just love to tell you.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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