This weekend I took Baby Bee to a birthday party for one of the boys in his class. It was a fun time…cute theme, the kids were so excited to see each other outside their normal setting and I got to see my little dude’s manners and social skills in action. Proud moment. But, I overheard a conversation that has bothered me all week and I feel that I need to address it.
Most of the party goers were family members of the birthday boy, although there was another mom from our school. She, along with the birthday boy’s parents, know that I am a teacher at our daycare. Nobody else present knew. One of his aunts was watching the boys play and mentioned how it’d be fun to be a fly on the wall in their class, just to see how they interact throughout the day. She then followed up with something along the lines of “although I’m sure the teachers wouldn’t appreciate that since I’m sure it’s not as educational as they’d like you to believe. I used to work at one, I know how it is.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but then didn’t as I wasn’t part of this conversation and didn’t know this woman at all. Blessedly, the other mom from our school spoke up sweetly and said “Oh I don’t know. I’ve had to drop the kids off late every day this week, and every time we come in, both classes are sitting down doing activities.” Auntie said “Really? Wow that’s surprising.” The conversation moved on and I bit my tongue solely to avoid confrontation. I’m not the type to pick an argument with a stranger at a child’s party. That’s like my worst nightmare. But her snide remarks have stuck with me all week and I feel that it was totally unfair. Yet, I get it.
I, too, was worried about that with Baby Bee when he first started daycare. I still sometimes get a bit concerned about his writing, spelling, counting, letter recognition etc. But I know his teachers, I know his class and I know my child. He is wicked smart and still just a child. Four year olds should not be expected to be doing 4th grade math and have excellent penmanship. They are FOUR. Why is playing such a thing to be frowned upon? Why can’t we nurture imaginations and problem solving skills and creativity? Why is how soon a child can write their name the mark of “good” education? I’d much rather have my son have a firm grip on manners, social skills, and self awareness before he can do simple math and write his full name legibly. Play is so much more important than people realize. Children learn important life skills during free play…storytelling, cooperation, diversity, problem-solving, coping, social skills….the list goes on and on.
That being said, childcare workers are not lazy babysitters. We are qualified EDUCATORS who understand that one, two, three, four and even five year olds cannot be expected to sit at tables and do mind-numbing writing exercises all day. They need creative freedom, physical activity, routine and exposure to other cultures, traditions and beliefs. Yes, we work on the alphabet and counting and shapes and colors. But we also work on coping with disappointment, following directions, regulating emotions, cultivating creativity , and finding a child’s niche–are they movers and shakers? Quiet observers? Extroverted storytellers? Natural born leaders? Early childhood educators learn a ton of information about a child’s personality, developmental levels and abilities by observing them in play, along with structured large and small group activities. This information can be relayed to parents to address behavioral concerns at home and school, answer questions about social or cognitive development, and highlight educational milestones. I hate the idea that play is not educational. Why the fuck isn’t it? Why do tiny children have to be turned into genius zombies at age 12 months?! Let them be little, and trust the process. They are learning more about themselves, society and life than you could ever imagine while they play. Cramming facts, rules and expectations into their developing brains is wiping away their personalities and confidence in themselves.
I’m not saying never teach a toddler or preschooler numbers and letters. But let’s do it at a developmentally appropriate level. Let’s do it in a way that resonates with that individual child, not a politician’s or center director’s or parent’s expectations. Let’s sit back and enjoy the beauty of P L A Y.
I know that’s what is happening at my center. My fellow teachers and I have busted our asses to better ourselves, our classrooms and our building for the sake of the families that we serve. We have stressed over making a cookie cutter curriculum fit to the need and level of our class. We have tiptoed the line of letting the children be creative but not destructive. We have had to defend our teaching over and over to parents, teachers, corporate bigwigs, directors and potential clients. We are constantly reassuring parents that their child IS learning and is within developmental “norms.” (And to be honest, I’ve been one of those parents.) Yes, there have been teachers that sit on their derrières and watch the kids go crazy all day. And ya know what? They don’t work with me anymore. Yes, there are daycares that are lax in their rules and curriculum. But not all of them. Don’t group the good ones with the bad ones. That’s not fair to the teachers working their hearts out for other people’s kids.
I am constantly looking for teachable moments in the everyday mundane. My mouth never stops talking to little ears, my feet never stop moving after balls of endless energy. I help barely verbal human beings deal with HUGE emotions. I walk them through milestones and encourage their interests and abilities. I teach them how to interact with others in a socially acceptable manner. If that isn’t educational than I don’t know what the hell is.