It’s 8:15 a.m. and our classrooms are half-full of students—one- and two-year-olds are eating breakfast as our co-teacher chats with them at the table. Parents come in and out of rooms, assisting with welcoming routines and offering, sometimes tearful, goodbyes.
Our learning for the day has already begun: hand washing; serving food out of family-style dishes; cleaning up the inevitable milk spills; and carefully using utensils. These tasks are all building the health, oral language, and fine motor skills vital as a foundation for our day.
After breakfast, circle time is our first whole-group meeting. Children practice language and early literacy, and teachers explicitly explain specific social skills. (It’s incredible what students will ignore from us, but completely internalize if delivered by a puppet.) As we transition to small groups with a song, giving single-step directions, students choose whether or not they want to jump into the activity.
Developmentally, many of them are only able to focus on one idea or task at a time. From the beginning of the year, we intentionally establish a learning environment that meets our children where they are developmentally and focuses on the whole child—from snipping paper to painting exercises. As the year goes on and our children become familiar with routines in our Head Start classrooms, we delve deeply into topics selected by students. Their interests guide us into more intricate and complex studies.
We aim to immerse our students in a playful and energetic environment. The imaginative conversation, role-playing, and free choice that teachers are facilitating are incredibly valuable to our preschool students as a foundation for long-term success academically and beyond. It also provides the authentic observation that we need, as early childhood professionals, to assess children’s developmental progress and plan intentional classroom experiences to extend their learning.
Eventually students and teachers hit the playground for gross motor play, with, you guessed it, another song transition. During recess, kids are encouraged to work on turn-taking, problem-solving, spatial reasoning, physical development, and communication. It’s not an optional break—it’s an opportunity for some of the most crucial learning of the day! After everyone is exhausted, students eat lunch and settle down for a nap in the classroom.
We breathe a sigh of relief as we reach the only time of day that we have to plan (assuming we don’t have a stubborn non-napper!) and reset the classroom for the afternoon’s snack, choice time, small group, and gross motor play. By 5:15 p.m. most of the students have left, picked up by their families. These goodbyes are sometimes as tearful as the ones with parents in the morning—after all, we’ve spent nearly every minute of the last nine hours together.
As whimsical as the day may seem, we’ve crafted intentional, scaffolded, differentiated learning activities at every point. We know that the best way to change educational trajectories is to do it early, using methods that are meaningful for kids. Our play is rigorous, and Head Start gives us, our students, and over 14,000 other young children in Missouri the chance to be joyful learners every day.