By Kate Scriven
Preschools by nature are places of joy, play and, well, lots of noise. The preschool at the Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia fits this to a “t”. Yet, under the noise and play there is something very special going on. Something that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know it’s here.
I am a mother of two. My girls are both out of preschool now, but I spent enough years doing drop-off and pick-up and gluing and glittering to know a bit about preschool. That’s why, when I recently spent the morning in the HOCM Preschool classroom, interacting with the children and talking with the staff, I thought I already knew what I was going to write. I was ready to share about nurturing environments and engaging materials. That’s what we all want to hear, right?
There was a nurturing environment, rich with materials to discover and explore, filled with opportunities for learning and inquiry. But it was that “something more” that kept pulling at my attention. It went beyond the (entirely amazing) color coded craft supplies. It was more than just daily, integrated access to one of the premier children’s museums in the country.
As I reviewed my notes and thought about my morning it became very clear. It was the people within the amazing space that made the biggest difference. The teachers were creating the joy, the opportunities for inquiry, the atmosphere of play as deep, deep learning.
Many Thurston County families know what I’m talking about. They have experienced the magic of Miss Betsy and Miss Susan. Outside the classroom, these two dedicated teachers are known as Betsy DeBoer and Susan Burnham and bring a wide variety of experience and expertise to their work with three, four and five year olds in the HOCM Preschool’s Multiage Early Learner and Playful Learner programs.
Situated in the upper level of the museum, the classroom is bathed in natural light and overlooks the Outdoor Discovery Center with floor to ceiling windows. Play is the main
mode of learning for the students but the teacher’s guide that play, creating opportunities for extending learning and on-the-spot assessment.
“Our whole education team here is on the same page,” shares DeBoer. “We observe the children where they are in their learning and push them to the next level, whatever that might be.” This responsive teaching means a fluid curriculum that differs day by day and year by year. The student’s needs, and interests, are what guide instruction.
During “free choice” students engaged in a variety of activities however all are required to “sign-in” for the day, a part of the daily routine. This day, however, their sign-in was using play-doh. Students formed their name over a preprinted card. Reaching different learning modalities and giving opportunity to show learning in a variety of ways is key to the teaching philosophy at HOCM. Some children may love writing with a pencil, and sign-in will be done this way on another day, but others clearly enjoyed this more tactile experience in “writing.”
The student sign-in is just an example of the more over-arching philosophy at the school. Knowing student’s needs and interests is at the core of all they do and informs their teaching decisions. Susan Burnham explains further: “We consider ourselves a ‘Reggio-Emilia inspired’ school. This name refers to an actual town in Italy where the idea of community based learning was founded. It’s focused on the youngest learners learning about their community through investigation and discovery in a rich environment that inspires them.”
This environment includes the entire facility at the Hands On Children’s Museum. “It’s not fancy recess,” laughs DeBoer when I ask her about the hour each day dedicated to the museum exhibits. The class will focus on only one area each day and repetition created by daily visits gives the opportunity for deeper learning as teachers circulate through, engaging with students, helping them create meaning in their play.
The idea of “community” is extended beyond the building with field trips into the surrounding areas. Budd Bay is in the Museum’s back yard and students learn about tides, shellfish, and the bay simply by way of their location. Trips on the Dash and to the adjacent Farmer’s Market open discussions about farmers, transportation, food, compost and so much more. The teachers allow this curiosity, bred by the student’s interactions with their environment, guide their teaching.
The classroom has a very high teacher to student ratio with one teacher, one assistant teacher, and one museum volunteer in a class no larger than 16 children. The day I visited, “Mr. Steve” was the volunteer, a retired businessman who joins the class each Wednesday. He is clearly a favorite of the children and choruses of “Mr. Steve, Mr. Steve!!” greeted him when he entered.
The Hands On Children’s Museum is certainly an amazing facility and their programing is among the best in the country. However when you get right down to what makes their Preschool so very special, it’s really Miss Betsy and Miss Susan. “I know it sounds cliché,” shares Burnham, “but the teachers here genuinely care about these kids. We see them, we value them, every day.”
Hands On Preschool is currently accepting applications for 2014-2015 for the following classes: Early Learners (ages 3-4), Playful Learners (ages 3-5), and Pre-K and Kindergarten Enrichment (ages 4-5). Find out more at www.hocm.org/preschool or call (360) 956-0818 x103.