Preschool as a Building Block

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By West Cook YMCA

The West Cook YMCA knows that learning starts early and that its popular preschool program meet the needs of the youngest children. Children ages two through five enjoy the play-based learning program that meets daily, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Youth Development Director Elizabeth Lopez says that the Y's focus on learning and relationships begins with a solid foundation in the preschool program.

"The cognitive, physical and social-emotional skills that are so important throughout a child's development begin with the preschoolers and carry over to the school age programs.

"Our preschoolers are building skills today that will impact their transition into kindergarten and the rest of their school years. Our teachers understand just how important these early developmental years are, and they use every activity in the classroom as a learning opportunity— from free play to science experiments," Lopez explains.

Preschool teacher Gingi Lahera has devoted her life to working with young students and says that play is the key to learning important skills for young children in her two to three-year-old classroom.

"The little ones need a significant amount of free play time. It's how they learn sociability, grace, courtesy, the ability to share and the knowledge that we all live in a community with others."

In the Y classroom, teachers provide many options for the children. A dramatic play area is set up where children are encouraged to use their imaginations while playing in a kitchen, with dress-up clothes, and with household items. A rug is the spot for manipulatives, such as blocks, LEGOS and toy cars. There are art stations, a doll house, a drawing and writing area,  and a peace table for quieter work, as well.

Lahera combines play time with a structure that provides a sense of safety and routine to her young students. Calling laminate and Velcro a preschool teacher's best friends, she describes a morning routine meant to ease the children into the school environment.

Upon entering the classroom, children find their names written on a card and attach them to a chart so that they can see who came to school and who is absent. A feelings chart allows children to let the teacher know if they are feeling happy, excited, silly, worried, sad or tired by attaching a picture to a chart.

Lahera notes that using the chart gives the children the opportunity to talk about their own feelings. During the day, they can revisit the chart to mark a change in their feelings, if they wish. If they're really proud of building a tower of blocks or upset because their feelings were hurt, they have the chance to use pictures to help express themselves..

While these tools help the youngest children learn important emotional skills, Lahera points out that much learning in Preschool takes place organically. Adventure walks through nearby parks in the spring allow the children to experience and talk about  plant growth and nature. Snack time provides a chance to learn about table manners and waiting your turn. Swim lessons not only teach lifelong skills, but ensure that little fingers get used to dressing themselves before and after lessons.

Lahera says the children find much happiness in the Y community and with each other, noting that the children feel like they are a part of something larger.

"They're just the most joyful group. They constantly surprise me by how much they can do and by how observant they are. They're inquisitive, curious people. Our classroom is a place where they feel safe enough to share what's on their minds, and I'm always amazed when they notice something wonderful about the world that I might not have seen myself," Lahera says.

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