As the circle of a dozen 3-year-olds at Westside Cooperative Preschool listens to a story read by their teacher, Caitlin Mason, one parent helps gently redirect two boys who want to roll around on the rug. Another parent sets tables in the adjoining room with a snack of crackers, apples, and salami.
This isn’t your average preschool, where parents wave goodbye to their children each day at drop-off, and then greet them again at pick-up 2 ½ hours later. Two or three times a month, each cooperative preschool parent helps the teacher in the classroom. They also take on a yearlong job for the school, from outdoor maintenance worker to librarian, webmaster to fundraising coordinator.
A cooperative preschool is a not-for-profit business, owned and operated by parents of children enrolled in the school. Parents elect a board of fellow preschool parents to run the business and hire teachers.
Each area cooperative preschool is unique in its own way, but they all share a common philosophy on early education: learning through open-ended, child-led play.
At the Westside Cooperative Preschool, there is a structure to each school day, including circle time and snack time, but much of each session is made up of free play time and each child chooses what he or she prefers to do, from pretend play to building, play dough to painting. All activities are designed to help children learn both fine and gross motor skills, as well as social skills.
A sensory table might be filled with moon sand one day, with dinosaurs strewn throughout, and with thousands of buttons of different shapes, sizes and colors the next. The children are drawn to it like a magnet, running its contents through their chubby fingers, digging and pouring.
A writing center, complete with paper, pencils, and envelopes, is where the children often write letters – in their own 2-, 3- and 4-year-old mysterious hieroglyphs. They then very proudly “read” to the teacher or parent helpers what they’ve written.
A loft structure with a slide is the focal point of the large room, painted arrows showing the correct way up the stairs and down the wide slide.
Each day, the teachers select items to be played with – Legos galore, floor puzzles, foam bricks – the variety seems nearly endless. Other toys are always available: giant wooden blocks, dress-up clothes, a dollhouse, cars and trucks. The list goes on.
In the adjoining room, four easels are always at the ready for pint-size Picassos. Each teacher sets up a couple of art projects as well, which the children can choose to do – with help, if needed, from parent helpers.
“Things in the classroom here don’t just happen by accident,” says Kaylene Smith, one of Westside Cooperative Preschool’s two teachers. She teaches Red Class, made up of 4- and 5-year-olds. “We intentionally plan what we put out every day, a collection of materials and art supplies for the kids to use and practice different skills.”
The two Westside Cooperative teachers also define themes for every month of the school year, such as geology, healthy bodies, and farming.
“We have a very broad theme every month,” says Kaylene. “Then we have projects and read books related to that theme.”
Caitlin Mason teaches Westside Cooperative Preschool’s Yellow Class (2- and 3-year-olds) and Orange Class (3- and 4-year-olds).
“Before I taught co-op, I taught preschool in Boulder, Colorado, at a private preschool,” says Caitlin. “It was nice to be able to weigh the pros and cons of the different styles, but there’s just no way to beat co-op – it’s really a wonderful experience for the parents to be able to be here and see what their kids are doing.”
Caitlin says she enjoys getting to know her students’ parents, which she missed out on while teaching private preschool. “The kids were dropped off for four hours at a time, and you didn’t develop the relationships with the parents like you do here.”
“The co-op preschool program is essentially two programs under one roof,” says Minnich, an adjunct faculty member and family educator with the Early Learning and Education Programs at South Puget Sound Community College “It’s children and parents learning together.”
According Minnich, each cooperative preschool classroom is considered a learning laboratory for parent education college students, who are the preschool parents.
That’s not to say that cooperative preschool parents are seeking degrees at the community college level. Most are already past traditional college age and are already professionals in their chosen fields. But they do earn community college credit and learn stronger parenting skills in the classroom while their children learn their own lessons, big and small.
In addition to working alongside the preschool teachers, cooperative preschool parents can participate in parent education learning opportunities via meetings, speaker forums, and on-line education articles – all of which helps support the classroom lab experience.
Minnich and another colleague work with all four area cooperative preschools to help facilitate the parent learning opportunities at parent education meetings, preschool classroom visits, and board meetings.
They also support the parents on early childhood education and parenting, the preschool boards on best practices, and the preschool teachers on curriculum development.
“One of the many nice things about our co-op is that Kaylene and I have a lot of freedom in planning our curriculum,” says Caitlin. “We aren’t given a list of things, aside from skills we want the kids to learn, and so what we choose to do is wide open.”
This lets the cooperative preschool teachers draw from a huge well of early education research. “It allows us to draw from the very best and tailor it to what works best for our class and our preschool,” says Caitlin. “It’s really one of the biggest blessings as a teacher here.”
“Every year we meet with the other co-op teachers in Olympia – they’re an amazing group of teachers – and our parent educators from SPSCC,” says Kaylene.
The group can find themselves talking about anything related to early childhood education and their preschools in particular.
“Last year we had a meeting about superheroes,” Kaylene says, smiling. “We’ve had meetings about taking the kids’ interests and designing some curriculum around that. Those meetings are always really enriching and rewarding for us.”
“We’re also very lucky to get to do some professional development,” she continues.
For example, all of the area cooperative preschool teachers attend an annual conference from the Washington Association for the Education of Young Children.
“We’re always full of new ideas and excitement when we come back” says Caitlin.
In turn, these new ideas constantly find their way into the cooperative preschool classrooms.
To learn more about enrollment, contact any of these area cooperative preschools:
Westside Cooperative Preschool
202 Delphi Road SW
Olympia WA 98502
Eastside Co-op Preschool
1412 Boulevard Road SE
Olympia WA 98507
Lacey Parent Cooperative Preschool
4501 19th Ave. SE
Lacey WA 98503
Steamboat Island Cooperative Preschool
6240 41st Avenue
Olympia WA 98502