A head start on kindergarten

Preschool program allows students to explore their world

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In the center of the room children build a castle out of blocks, only to push their hands into it and watch it tumble seconds later.

Next to them are children burying their hands in a tub of corn, scooping it up in glasses and dumping it back out.

Behind the "children of the corn" are two young boys seated side by side, smearing shaving cream on cooking pans.

So learning center time goes on a normal afternoon at the Moffat County Early Childhood Center.

"It's not chaos," says director Sara Hepworth, from her office adjacent to the room. "There really is a structure and a flow to the day."

In another part of the room, children are painting, and in another they pick out pretend groceries, checking them out with a child grocery checker using a pretend scanner.

"Miss Jennifer needs some kids!" one of the children yells from a hallway leading to another classroom, apparently concerned that there are not enough children involved in the other classroom activity in which children are batting balloons with fly swatters.

Learning center time occurs in the middle of the 2 hours and 45 minutes children spend at the school everyday.

Prior to that they have community circle time, in which teachers direct structured activities in which children sing songs, figure out science and math experiments and explore art projects.

Later in the day, they break into small groups, eat snacks, go outside or have a story time.

"The kids know the routine and what's happening next," Hepworth said.

After one activity, a teacher asks, "Do you know what time it is now?"

"Snack time!" they respond in unison.

A combination of structure and freedom is important in preschool, she said.

"We're making sure they have particular experiences so they can develop as naturally as possible," Hepworth said. "Kids love to get their hands in things at this age. We're letting them make discoveries about their world."

An increase in accountability and requirements at the grade school level has increased the importance of preschool, Hepworth said.

Skills that were once taught in kindergarten are now expected in preschool, she said.

"The pressure on outcomes that has been developed is now being passed down to preschoolers," she said. "They want kids to be ahead of where they used to be. Kindergarten is now about getting skills for the first grade."

Another factor that has increased the importance of preschool, Hepworth said, is families in which an adult is not home during the day.

"Before both parents started working, it wasn't as important because kids were doing these things at home, like helping do the dishes," she said. "We're trying to simulate those experiences."

While Hepworth said she believes the importance of preschool has increased, it's still not reading, writing and arithmetic.

"Rigid goals are not in place," she said.

At the Early Childhood Center children are in a world of "hands-on learning," she said.

"We want kids to try new things and have new experiences," she said. "We try to reach into all of their talents and interests so they can find what they like."

The staff of 10 teachers at the school, who teach about 110 different three- to five-year-olds throughout the week, are serious about their profession, Hepworth said.

"We look for teachers who want to teach preschool as a career," she said. "I have such great teachers. All of them aspired to become preschool teachers."

Toni Tuttle, who has taught at the school for nine years, now has a child who is a preschooler.

She said she is just now seeing the importance of what is taught at the school through interactions with her child at home.

"There's a lot of learning that goes on that you don't realize," she

said.

But the philosophy at the school is simple, Tuttle said.

"When they play, they learn," she said. "That's the philosophy."

Moffat County Assistant Superintendent Joel Sheridan, who is administrator of the Early Childhood Center, said those who doubt the benefits of preschool have never been in the classroom.

"If you don't believe in it you just haven't witnessed it," he said. "It's a good program for everybody. Anyone who has seen it first hand knows that it has a significant

positive impact."

Josh Nichols can be reached at 824-7031 or jnichols@craigdailypress.com.

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