Learning Through Play
For Early Learning students at Westside School, days are filled with exploration, creativity, stories, trips to the playground, specialists, and building social-emotional skills. Peek through the windows to a preschool or pre-Kindergarten classroom, and what looks like play to us is actually students learning to make sense of the world around them, building social and cognitive skills, and constructing knowledge that they will use as they continue to grow and navigate the world around them.
Learning and play are not separate activities. They are deeply intertwined and the idea that play is learning is at the heart of Westside’s program. - McKenzie Craig, Early Learning Division Head
As classroom doors open each morning, children excitedly enter, eager to get their school day started. First on the agenda is Morning Meeting, where each class will go over the daily schedule, find out classroom jobs, and add the day's date to the calendar.
Self-Awareness and Recognizing Emotions
One of the most important aspects of Morning Meeting is a “feelings check-in.” The first Social Emotional Learning (SEL) competency is self-awareness, and it starts with students being able to identify how they feel. A daily check-in helps students learn to recognize different emotions and the intensity of emotions. Feelings check-ins also communicate that how everyone feels is important and that as part of the Westside community, those around you care how you feel. SEL is not only woven throughout the Early Learning Program but integrated throughout the curriculum from PS all the way to 8th grade!
After Morning Meeting, recess, and snack, worktime begins with a quiet buzz as children begin engaging with the materials and interacting with their peers.
Westside’s preschool and pre-Kindergarten classrooms are set up so there are many play areas for students to engage with a variety of materials and choices during worktime. Each area is a unique portal for children’s learning through play. Worktime choices include block building, sensory play, dramatic play, writing center, process art, manipulatives, and creation station.
Who doesn’t want to play “grocery store,” “going on vacation,” or “flying through space?!” During Dramatic Play, children learn and practice social-emotional skills, develop their language and literacy skills, and become storytellers by taking on roles and characters.
During one especially exciting day in pre-Kindergarten, there was a zombie invasion in their classroom!
*Gasps* “They’re ghosts, wait, they’re zombies, close them up!”
“Do something, there’s even more, we need to shut it down.”
“There's more in there; we need to open a hatch.”
“This can scan zombies to see who they are; almost all the zombies are in a container.”
Throughout this ongoing interaction, the children worked together, communicated their efforts, and thought of new ideas for trapping the zombies. Observing this process gives us insight into the children’s abilities to independently build relationships and respect one another's ideas. They take time to listen to each other, and they create meaningful play through these connections.
Through Block Play, children learn problem-solving, mathematics, science, and social-emotional skills. In the block area, you will often find students working collaboratively, verbalizing their thoughts, compromising, and collectively imagining.
As they work, they share ideas about their plan, what the structure will end up being, and the blocks that they need to build it. “Hey, can you pass me a big rectangle” “What if we put these two circle blocks over here?” “How will the police cars get in?” This makes everyone stop, think, and then, “Oh…I know, let’s get a flat block and make a ramp. See this open space here. That can be the garage door.” Through this exploration, students were grappling with concepts such as force and motion, physics, balance, and engineering.
Read-Alouds and Storytelling
By late morning, it’s time for a read-aloud. The stories chosen are often related to the curriculum from the week, speak to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), or support Social Emotional Learning. Guest “mystery readers” provide an extra special surprise, where students get a visit from family members and Westside staff they don’t normally see. Read-aloud happens both in the classroom and during weekly library classes.
Storytelling continues to be a huge part of our classroom, and students are often inspired by authors. Many students will spend Worktime creating books that are then read during storytime, or reflecting and writing in their journals.
For both preschool and pre-Kindergarten students, afternoons are filled with specialist classes.
Starting in Preschool, students learn both Mandarin and Spanish through song and dance, storytelling, and more. In addition to learning each language, the curriculum also works to instill awareness and understanding of the products, practices, and perspectives of cultures and communities here and across the world. There is a big emphasis on cultivating their senses of being Global Citizens and solidifying pathways for future language learning.
The focus of P.E. for early learners is on figuring out their bodies in relation to the world. Creative movements, like practicing how to move like different animals, hand-eye coordination with scarfs, and creating patterns of movements with activities like freeze-tag, can be found during class each week.
The third specialist class all early learners partake in is music class. Children can easily and quickly mimic music and sounds they hear as an additional way to understand and make sense of the world around them. Music also aids in sensory development, creating more pathways between the cells in their brains. In music class, the focus is often on creative expression, being part of an ensemble, skill development, and multiculturalism in music.
Empowered and Spontaneous
While routines and expectations are an important part of each school day, students are also empowered to take an active role in their learning. Teachers observe the spontaneous interests of students and guide them to projects and learning that reflect their natural curiosity. Some weeks, entire lessons will be created based on things that come up during worktime. One such instance happened in November when playing doctor became a consistent theme during dramatic playtime.
“We took inspiration from the children’s dramatic playtime, and we decided on starting a unit on the human body. Specifically, the children have been playing doctor and they often mention babies and kids being sick. The connection between bodies and the medical field is a great way to segue into a unit that breaks down different parts of the body.” - Jenine Puello, PK Teacher
After a busy day, it’s time to wrap things up and say goodbye during Closing Circle. During Closing Circle, teachers reflect with the students on the day's learning and share how they will continue it the following day, as well as any special events, birthdays, or visitors that are planned. The day ends with the children singing a goodbye song, gathering their belongings, and heading home or to Extended Day.