“What Teaching and Learning Looks Like at Greenhouse”
We know that the beginning of the school year is filled with anticipation. For many, this is your child’s first step out of home and into this place called school. We realize and appreciate the huge leap of faith you are taking by sharing your children with us. For others, your children are returning to Greenhouse, but in a new class, with new friends and new teachers. All of you are wondering, what will the year be like for my child? Will he be able to say good-bye without too many tears? Will he make a new friend? What will she learn this year? Will she be ready for kindergarten? As parents, it is sometimes a struggle to navigate these uncertainties and worries. Tonight, I’d like to pull back the curtain! Tonight, I want to answer the question ‘what does your child learn at Greenhouse.’ After I answer the what, I’ll also try to answer the how!
It all begins in our view of children as capable and competent learners. When you start by seeing all children as capable and competent, it means you begin with an understanding that all children are born ready and wired to learn. We trust that even our youngest children come into this world ready. They don’t need to get ready, they are ready. This implicit trust in children is foundational to understanding our environment, philosophy and pedagogy. We trust and respect that our children come to us with lively minds, filled with ideas and possibilities. We also know that they are shaped by their cultural experiences. It is our job to enter into a relationship with them that honors both their ideas and their experiences. And then, to prepare an environment that demonstrates our trust in their capacity, builds onto their experiences and encourages them to take the lead in their own learning.
We intentionally create a setting that invites exploration and engagement that will lead to discovery. It doesn’t look or feel like what you might remember ‘school’ looking like. And that is on purpose! While there is much pressure for early childhood schools to rethink their practices and move away from playful discovery and move towards formal, teacher-led instruction, at Greenhouse we hold fast to the understanding that the power of play and the power of discovery join together to create the perfect conditions for learning. But I know what some of you are thinking….”Renee, what do children really learn while stacking bears onto barrels?” I understanding the anxiety underneath this question. I know the fear and uncertainty that comes with parenting in general. That fear is then compounded by the expectations and limitations by the sheer truths that exist because we are parenting in New York City. This “What do they really learn?” question captures a parent’s anxiety as well as sheds light on a parent’s understanding of a specific type of learning– content learning.
Content learning, meaning those nuggets of information or facts that speak and look like traditional learning including specific skills like colors, letters, and shapes. These hard skills are easily identifiable to adults. They feel like important learning. They are recognizable and measurable. They are accessible. They are concrete. While we fully understand the value of these isolated skills, at Greenhouse, we also know that these hard skills are just one piece—one small piece—to the question of what children need to learn in early childhood. We know that if we solely focus on content skills, we have lost the heart of these early childhood years.
At Greenhouse, content is just one of the 6Cs (Golinkoff, R. and Hirsh-Pasek, K. 2016) our children will learn. The 6Cs, Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking, Creative Innovation, Confidence (along with Content), require a broader definition of the word ‘skill.’ These areas of learning include skills that are less concrete, less measurable, but dare I say even more important, than content skills, especially in the early childhood years. While being an early reader might be alluring, there is little research evidence that it has lasting positive effect on children’s long-term academic achievement. Current research, in fact suggests that formal instruction too soon might be doing the exact opposite; it may be weakening children’s natural intellectual disposition.
Our children’s school and life-long success will depend on a deep, meaningful understanding of ‘soft skills’ like adaptability, autonomy, communication skills, creativity, empathy, integrity, planfulness, resilience, self-control, internal motivation, social skills, teamwork, responsibility, organization, initiative, and negotiation skills (Golinkoff, R. and Hirsh-Pasek, K. 2016). These skills are the ones that will allow our kids to be successful in school and beyond!
The first of the 6Cs is Collaboration; it is the act of sharing an idea and working together to see it through. This is how people accomplish great big, important tasks. Relating to other human beings in a positive way is the very foundation of our human experience. There is nothing ‘soft’ about this skill; it is fundamental to learning. You might look at this picture and see a young boy making eggplant. You might think we are a culinary school, training future chefs. I look at this picture and see something else. In addition to the fine young man, making his eggplant, I see a young girl; she is controlling her impulses, regulating her own desires, patiently delaying her own gratification. I see a young girl practicing important behaviors that make her a good collaborator! Being able to wait your turn to use the cooking utensils or resist your urge to knock over a friend’s building, these are important ways young children practice the skills that help them be successful collaborators. Much of our project work is designed to intentionally put children into circumstances where they need to work together. Project work requires our children to share a vision with each together. Whether you are creating a 3-D sculpture or building your own sheep! The skills are still the same: you need to listen to your friends, you need to share the vision, and you need to negotiate the social space between yourself and others.
In this contextual work, you practice taking on the perspective of another. In small group work, our children begin to get a sense of who they are and who their friends are. And, most importantly, they co-construct an understanding of who they are together. It is here—in this sense of connectedness, in these moments of relatedness, in these first experiences of community—where we can make some really special music together!
Collaboration requires effective communication, our next of the 6Cs. How do we accurately share our ideas with others? How do we get our point of view across? How well do we understand another’s points of view? Our kids have daily opportunity to practice the skills needed in effective communication. They use language for many purposes at Greenhouse including casual conversations with their peers, the give-and-take talk of pretend play, or conversations with the grown-ups. They practice both expressing their own ideas, hopes and thoughts and also actively listen to the ideas, hopes and thoughts of others. There are also more formal, intentional opportunities to practice communicating, like presentations of their work to the group, dictating their stories to a teacher or participating in a circle time discussion. As an end result, our children leave Greenhouse knowing that teachers care about what they think and what they have to say. Our kids feel confident to express their ideas. They know they are knowledge producers. They are not simply empty vessels waiting for us to fill them up with facts and knowledge. They know they have power that they can exert in a learning space. And they can hold the space for their friends and peers to do the same.
In addition to being effective communicators, our children also practice another of the 6C’s: critical thinking skills. Whether they are comparing works of art, categorizing bugs or sorting photos of people’s emotions, they are learning how to analyze and organize information by finding similarities and patterns. Again, project work provides the perfect context to practice critical thinking. The heart of the learning inside a project does not rest on the topic or in its finished product. The power of project work rest within each discovery that informs our next decision. Which tool will I need to take this machine apart? How will we make legs for our sheep? The ideas and solutions for these questions come from the children. The children identify materials that might be good to use as legs—sticks, logs or paper towel rolls.
Will their ideas actually work? Might we, as adults with more experience, know that skinny, little sticks won’t work as legs for our man-made sheep? Yes, we might know that. But instead of being the holders of the knowing ourselves, we allow the children’s ideas to come to life and let the experience unfold. The most powerful learning sometimes happens when things don’t work out and we need to revisit our ideas.
Critical thinking and creative innovation go hand in hand. At Greenhouse, we pride ourselves on cultivating each child’s individual voice and creative aspirations. Art materials provide an ideal opportunity for children to show us the extent of their creative innovation. Open ended materials—like collage materials, paint, paper, glue—provide the perfect opportunity for inventiveness. Children approach these opportunities with intention and planfulness. Their art work is not mindless or haphazard. In their use of art materials we see children build focus and flexible thinking.
Look, I get it…You are at home, cleaning up from a long day. You find your child’s backpack. There, sticking out of it, is yet another taped, rolled up piece of paper. You untape it, unroll it and find this! I understand where for a split second you might think, “That’s it? Just a piece of paper covered with paint? This is the learning you did today?” And then the mind spirals and you think, “Kindergarten is coming! You will need to read in kindergarten! Then there’s that test! The cold world!! It’s all coming! How is THIS preparing you for that?” Let me give you a different way to look at this. Remember that, this is the end result. This is all you get to see. We get to see so much more. We get to see the whole process! We get to witness what happens to your child as he is faced with that blank piece of paper. We get to watch as your child develops a plan. “Where should I put the first mark?” And the next mark? “I’ll put it over here and I’ll make a whole brand new color! Look at me, creating my own colors, making decisions, exerting power, and feeling like a powerful, competent whole-person! Hey what happens if I try a swirly stroke?”
Each time he remembers the sequence of actions required to paint: brush in the paint, then on the paper, back in the paint, back on the paper. His fingers are practicing how to hold the brush. His eyes are moving from left to right as he works. All of these behaviors to you might seem incidental; we recognize them as skills he needs to practice to someday interpret print and be a reader and a writer. Meanwhile, the child’s brain is on fire with ideas! He is organizing his thoughts, he is acting with intention, and he is controlling his behavior. This is what engagement looks like! This is what an active four year old brain looks like! Each decision leads to the next. As your child stands in front of a blank piece of paper there are limitless possibilities and here he chose focused, intentional, organized work that reflects his thoughts and his ideas. So resist that urge to dismiss that rolled piece of paper sticking out of the backpack as simply a fun activity that filled some time in your child’s day.
Instead, look at those easels paintings as an important opportunity for your child to practice those soft skills that make him a creative innovator and a life-long learner.
And most importantly, remember how powerful and competent your child felt standing in front of that paper, watching her thoughts and ideas come out and manifest themselves right there for all to see! Remember how proud she was when the adults commented on her effort and didn’t judge her finished project. Remember the deep confidence, commitment and joyful abandon she used in her approach to materials. Because through it all, through learning how to control your impulses, collaborate with a friend or communicate your plans—through it all, ultimately what children learn at Greenhouse is a deep, strongly-felt confidence in themselves as a capable and competent learner. They feel proud of their accomplishments. They are willing to take risks. When things fall down, they build them back up again—sometimes even higher than before! It is this confidence in themselves that will allow them to preserve and persist when things get difficult. It is what will shelter them from the cold world, when it comes.
So if the 6C’s represent the what? The question remains –how? How do young children learn these important skills at Greenhouse? Stated simply, we believe that children learn best when they are actively engaged with people, materials and ideas. Children develop skills in that spark of interaction that exists between the child and the rest of the world. Learning doesn’t happen in isolation. According to research, four key ingredients need to be present for successful learning: children need to be mentally active and engaged. They need to be socially interactive (with others or materials) and lastly, they need to build meaningful connections to their everyday lives. (Hirsh-Pasek et al. 2015).
Learning happens when the brain is on; engagement and interaction spark the brain (you can feel the thinking, the wondering, the questioning catch on fire). Interaction can come with materials or people or ideas—one is not better than the other—they each can create the point of inspiration that turns on the brain. I would assert (and lucky for me, research supports) that play is the way that this learning happens for young children. Play provides the precise context that facilitates meaningful, contextual learning and makes a child’s learning visible. We see learning become visible when children apply their knowledge and make meaning. Think about a child copying the letter S across a row on a piece of paper. This doesn’t show us that a child has learned what “S” symbolizes or how to use it. Simply copying letters doesn’t not prove learning. But learning is visible when a child uses her knowledge of the letter/sound correspondence to sound out and write “school bus” on the bus she and her friends just created.
We know deep learning isn’t visible during rote memorization. True complex understanding comes when you make a discovery and it challenges what you thought you knew. True learning comes in moments when you discover that a bunch of squares can transform into rectangles or you discover 6 triangles put together can become this thing called a hexagon! And then, you show your friends and they can do it, too! And then you all do it again tomorrow! In these interactions, in these engagements, you see a child’s understanding of shape shift and grow. Are they playing with blocks or are they making their learning visible?
At Greenhouse, our classrooms are intentionally designed and equipped to inspire those exact conditions. We find the perfect conditions for learning in the context of our children’s play and then we add an intentional, thoughtful teacher! Our teachers play a vital role in supporting your child’s learning during their play. A teacher joins in the play as a co-constructor of knowledge. We call this scaffolding or guided play. Our baby dolls need a new high chair? Can we make one from card board? While guided play leaves the center of power within the child, an adult may make an interesting suggestion or ask an intriguing question. “Hm, I wonder how we might make the legs stronger.”
The child incorporates this feedback and continues to experiment, make adjustments and connections. Here, the product is not the point. This process of child-directed play, with thoughtful intentional support by our teachers-this is how children learn the 6Cs at Greenhouse. Guided play combines the exploration and autonomy of free play with thoughtful, intentional teacher practice.
A fundamental tenant of understanding what and how learning takes place at Greenhouse is to understand that learning is never opposite of playing. At Greenhouse, we know it is our joyful responsibility to prepare an environment that will excite and inspire your child’s lively mind. We provide the space, materials and partnership; your child provides the thinking, ideas, and the initiative. Together we create the powerful context for learning. We know that direct instruction of content and isolated skills will never be enough. We know that kids can have all the right answers and still not succeed. We know that facts and hard skills alone will fail to create learners that can discover answers to new, untold questions and find the innovative solutions to problems yet unknown.
Instead, we trust every child’s innate capacity to learn. Trust is hard. But in those moments when those voices in your head start worrying, “That test! It is coming!” or “Is he learning enough? Will he be ready?” Fight it. Trust. It is our shared responsibility to give our kids these early childhood years of playful discovery and supportive inquiry, so that tomorrow, next year, even ten years from now, they will continue to own their voice, their ideas and their learning.
So, to those that wonder, “Will my child be ready for kindergarten?” I answer with a responding “Yes! Your child will be ready for kindergarten and for a life-long journey of learning!”