Preschool: BYU program works to foster a love for learning in children

The laughter of little children may seem out of place on a college campus, but at Brigham Young University, it is a common occurence.

BYU, like many universities throughout the country, has a preschool on campus for youngsters, ages 4-5.The purpose of the preschool is two-fold: to provide a natural setting for college students in family sciences to learn about children, and to be a center for research, from where parents can glean ideas in raising their own children, said Jean M. Larsen, coordinator of early childhood education in the BYU Department of Family Sciences.

Being a parent can often be difficult - particularly when it concerns teaching and disciplining children.

But according to early childhood educators at BYU, the Savior provided a perfect model of how to nurture children, helping them grow and learn in an environment of inductive reasoning.

"Rather than making threats of punishment and being authoritarian, the Savior talked to children and reasoned with them," said Craig H. Hart, BYU associate professor of family sciences.

"Our research has shown that children of more inductive, nurturing parents are more pro-social on the playground, more cooperative with their peers and more accepted by them," he explained. "Parents who are inductively oriented explain consequences of certain actions, set limits and follow through. They give children freedom to operate in those limits and develop skills."

That philosophy, backed by years of research, is practiced by teachers at the BYU preschool as they give children an opportunity to make choices in a safe environment.

The BYU preschool, a program open to parents in the community, is held in two sessions - the fall/winter session and spring/summer session.

Children enrolled in the program meet four days a week for 21/2 hours in a morning or afternoon session, said Julie Haupt, BYU preschool administrator. The children are selected randomly to participate in the program, which is popular among parents in the area.

Ninety-seven youngsters are enrolled in this year's fall/winter session and usually about 140 are enrolled for spring/summer, she added. A post-kindergarten class is also held during the summer. Full-time teachers teach the class and BYU students who are studying family sciences help with teaching.

"An optimal program for young children would be one that provides support to parents and assists them in fulfilling their role," Sister Larsen remarked. "That is the unique aspect of a good early childhood program with a good teacher - one who interacts with children, but really is able to assist the parent by providing educational resources. If a preschool program is not doing that, then it is not fulfilling its optimal role.

"The early education of children is embedded in family and that natural environment," she added. "According to our philosophy, any early childhood program theoretically is supplemental to what is or should be happening in the home."

And parents can also learn by watching how the model works at the BYU preschool. "They may observe something here that may work for them at home," Sister Haupt noted.

Teachers send home suggestions of activities that can be done at home with the same focus learned at preschool that week, she explained.

One point of research, which is also modeled at the BYU preschool, includes the philosophy of "hands-on" learning, a philosophy the program has practiced since its beginnings in 1950.

Rather than using a formal instruction model of worksheets and drills, children are taught how to relate to a subject by being active participants.

Drills and flashcards really limit education for young children, Brother Hart said. "Young children can memorize, but there is no meaning to the drill because it is not related to anything they know. It is only laborious.

"What we want to do in children is foster a predisposition to enjoy learning," he explained. "If learning takes place in a natural, everyday setting then learning is a fun thing."

If children attending the BYU preschool program are learning about the ocean, for example, then they work in all curriculum areas using the ocean as a point of interest, Sister Haupt explained.

"For science we would do bubble blowing, sink and float experiments and colored water for cause and effect relationships. The children become exposed to print as they ask how words like ocean are spelled while playing with letter cookie cutters and clay. That helps put letters in context.

"Then the children would talk about what they would do at the ocean, telling stories and later seeing their words used in that situation."

Math is taught by using a fishing pole with a magnet attached for fishing. The children count the fish they catch.

"We hope to take all the skills and put them in a context where it has meaning for the children," she said. "They hardly know they are learning they are so excited."

Sister Larsen remarked: "To be a facilitator of learning, the teachers take play situations and engage children's minds into problem solving. That provides learning that a child has control over. The children construct the concepts and ideas rather than being instructed."

"That can happen at home, too," Sister Haupt added. "Parents can point out details while sorting laundry or setting the table. They can talk about sizes and shapes or colors. Children soak up the experience and it's fun for them. If they help set the table, parents can ask them how many forks there are or if there are enough for everyone. That is a good math experience."

"When parents take advantage of these teaching moments," she said, "a great deal of learning can occur."

BYU's philosophy of "hands-on" learning is shared by many foremost early childhood professionals, Sister Larsen noted, including the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the nation's largest professional association of early childhood educators.

"Good preschool teachers help children learn to discover rather than disseminate information," Brother Hart added. "One thing we have found in our research is that children who are pushed academically at an early age as opposed to being in a more hands-on program exhibit more stress behavior. Those who are in a more hands-on preschool also tend to do better academically in elementary school later."

Sister Haupt noted that "there is a strong belief that the younger we teach children and the harder we push, the better prepared they will be in a competitive world. Many parents are well-meaning but get caught up in making sure their children know their colors or their letters before kindergarten. That is not necessarily the essence of good parenting.

"Young children need to build a strong base of experience," she added. "When they have basic wide-based life experiences and build good social relationships, they are better prepared for school and learning experiences in the future."

Clyde Robinson, BYU associate professor of family science, pointed out that children can also benefit from rich experiences with other children their same age. "If they have a brother and sister, that is one thing, but to interact with children their own age gives them rich experiences in cooperation and socialization. If they have a problem sharing, it can get worked out here with the help of teachers."

Sister Haupt said that reading to children from an early age is also important and something the BYU educators emphasize at the preschool.

"We encourage all parents to spend 15 minutes a day," she explained. "Parents should let children get involved in the story to give them language experience, not just get them through a certain number of books in a certain amount of time."

"Reading," Sister Larsen concluded, "contributes to literacy development, but more important it develops relationships. It begins when children are young and continues. My feeling is that we would solve many ills of the world if parents would read to their children every day. They build relationships and the children learn to value what parents value. I cannot see a child being disobedient or disrespectful to a parent who establishes that kind of relationship."

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