Renee’s Opening Remarks from Greenhouse’s Opening Meeting in September 2023:
“The beginning of the school year is always filled with such 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 child is returning to Greenhouse, but in a new class, with new friends and new teachers. Regardless if you are a new or returning family, there are always questions and worries at the beginning of school. What will the year be like for my child? Will they be able to say goodbye without too many tears? Will they make a new friend? What will they learn this year? Ultimately, will they be ready for kindergarten? As parents, it is a constant struggle to navigate some uncertainties and worries. Tonight, I will pull back the curtain and answer some of those questions — specifically the question I get asked most often from parents — what does my child learn at Greenhouse?
At our foundation, our educational philosophy begins with our view of children as capable and competent learners. When we start off by seeing all children as capable, competent and whole human beings, it means we 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 is in direct comparison to a more traditional view of children as a blank slate or empty vessel that needs us to fill it up with facts or tell it what to learn. Instead, at Greenhouse, we recognize that our children come to us with lively minds, filled with ideas and possibilities. We also know that our kids are shaped by their cultural experiences and identities. It is our job to enter into a relationship with them that honors both their ideas and their lived experiences and individual identities. From there, every decision we make demonstrates our trust in our children’s capacity and potential to learn, including how we design our classroom environment, how we set up our daily schedule and how we develop curriculum. Because of this trust in our children, we intentionally create a classroom environment that invites exploration and engagement and that leads 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, 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 in the early childhood years.
We strive to support the “life of the [child’s] mind in its fullest sense.” (Katz, 2015) Current chatter on social media or conversations with other parents can stoke that fear that our children are not learning or focusing on the right things. When we get anxious, we often turn to what we know and what we recognize to bring us comfort. For us, as grownups, the simplest learning to instantly identify is content learning. When I hear questions from parents that include, ‘What are they learning? It looks like they are just playing!’ I know they are really asking me, “Where is the content?”
Content learning, meaning those nuggets of information or facts that speak and look like traditional knowledge or skills including things like color names, letters and numbers; these are easily recognized as important learning by all of us. Whether it is identifying letter names, playing with letter sounds to write words or identifying numeral names, we know that these skills are significant. At Greenhouse, instead of practicing these skills in rote isolation, we use our knowledge of these skills to answer questions or make deeper meaning in our bigger intellectual pursuits. We understand and support content learning as an important feature of learning in the early childhood years. It is deeply embedded in all of our projects and in our play. Instead of looking at learning as being a narrow definition of content skills, we hold a much broader understanding of what early learning looks like. At Greenhouse, content is just one of the 6Cs (Golinkoff, R. and Hirsh-Pasek, K, 2016) our children will learn. These 6 areas — Content, Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking, Creative Innovation and Confidence — lay out a more complete picture of what children learn.
Collaboration is the act of sharing an idea and working together to see it through. This is how people accomplish great big, important tasks, like building a bridge together or making soup. Figuring out how to work with others is why you come to nursery school! Relating to other human beings in a positive way is the very foundation of our human experience. Learning who you are in relationship to those around you — including peers and other adults outside your family — is a life-long journey that begins right now in early childhood. Learning how you are different from others and learning how you are the same as others will help you build a well-rounded understanding of humanity. Not only is this skill important for life, understanding how to exist alongside other people is fundamental to learning. This learning how to thrive inside a group or community (that is outside of your family) is central to the Greenhouse experience. Our every decision provides children the opportunity to be effective collaborators. Being able to wait your turn to use the cooking utensils or being able to resist your very natural and developmentally appropriate urge to knock over that building your friend is working on are important ways young children practice the skills that help them be successful community members and school kids. Much of our project work is designed to intentionally put children into circumstances where they need to work together. In addition to specific projects, our daily work time provides opportunity for kids to work in small organic groups on a goal of their own choosing. Here our children begin to get a sense of who they are, who their friends are and how they can work together to make their ideas come to life. This kind of cooperation, shared vision and joyful collaboration isn’t easy! It is here, in these moments when they come up against another person’s mind or in these opportunities for connection that our kids first experience community.
Now, collaboration requires effective communication, which is our next area of learning! How do we effectively share our ideas with others? How do we get our point of view across? How do we understand another’s points of view? Our kids have daily opportunity to practice the skills needed in effective communication. Verbal languages is a vital tool that young children use to tell us what they are thinking (it isn’t the only — but it IS important). At Greenhouse we bathe children in opportunities to use language for many different purposes, including casual conversations with their peers, the give-and-take talk of play and then more in-depth conversations with the grown-ups that might include sharing stories of their life at home or sharing facts abouts their emotional life or fears and dreams. Young children are just at the beginning of their learning how to use language to communicate their inner thoughts, ideas and feelings. Being in school provides the perfect opportunity for our kids to practice both expressing their own ideas and also actively listening to the ideas, hopes and thoughts of others. Effective communication requires that you can do — both express yourself and hear and understand others.
As children grow and move through the classrooms at Greenhouse, there are even 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 (and not just simply do they have the right answer?). Our kids feel confident to express their ideas. 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 important area of learning directly in the context of their play and work: critical thinking skills. Whether they are comparing works of art at a circle time, sorting and matching materials, or using loose parts to demonstrate emotions, they are learning how to analyze and organize information by finding similarities and patterns. 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 the thinking and each discovery that informs our next idea or decision.
The last area of learning provides our children opportunity for creative innovation. We pride ourselves on cultivating each child’s individual voice and unique point of view. We want children to see themselves as problem solvers and agents of their own learning. If spoken words drive communication skills, materials drive our approach to creative innovation. We use a wide array of open-ended materials—like natural materials and loose parts — to give kids the opportunity to be inventive and exploratory in their approach. Many of our materials do not have a right or wrong way to use them — instead they are screaming with possibility! Instead of looking for the one right way to use these materials, children approach them with playfulness and curiosity that quickly turns into a determined, intentional plan and fully formed idea. Their work with these materials is not mindless or haphazard. In their use of open materials, we see children build intention, focus, flexibility, creative problem solving and thinking. Art materials provide an ideal opportunity for children to show us the extent of their initiative and innovation. Their daily work with art materials provides an important opportunity for children to practice the skills that will make them a creative innovator, problem solver and life-long learner. It also builds confidence – a deep confidence in their own skills, ideas and abilities!
Remember how powerful and competent your child felt standing in front of that blank piece of paper, watching their thoughts and ideas come out and manifest themselves right there for all to see. Because through it all — through learning how to control your impulses during a board game with a friend, collaborate on a class-wide project or share a serendipitous discovery with a friend, ultimately what children learn at Greenhouse is a deep, strongly-felt confidence in themselves as a capable and competent learner that loves school! They feel proud of their accomplishments. They are willing to take risks. It is this confidence in themselves that will allow them to persevere and persist when things get difficult. Confidence in their own ability to do, think, act and learn is what will shelter them from the cold world, when it comes.
So if the 6C’s represent what our kids are learning? 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 themselves and the rest of the world; that interaction can happen with materials or people or ideas. I would assert (and lucky for me, research supports) that play is the way that this learning most naturally happens for young children. Play provides the precise context that facilitates meaningful, contextual interaction with ideas, with people and with materials and then fosters a new understanding of the world for children. In play, a child is internally motivated to use their knowledge to make meaning and deepen their play. They use play to consolidate their ideas and learning.
At Greenhouse, our classrooms are intentionally designed and equipped to inspire children to show us their thinking. And that intentional design starts with an intentional, thoughtful teacher! Our teachers play a vital role in supporting your child’s learning. A teacher plans the environment and chooses the materials to make sure there are plenty of opportunities for discovery. Then the teacher joins in the play as a co-constructor of knowledge. Teachers are not the keepers of knowledge. They are the facilitators of discovery, thinking and learning; they are planning the right activity, finding an interesting material, asking the probing questions. Our teachers bring their own thoughtful, intentional teacher ideas to their practice. A fundamental tenet 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 your child. It is our shared responsibility to protect our kid’s early childhood years and give them opportunities for 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. 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!”