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Preschool is about a lot more than reading or writing — even at home during a pandemic

In my search for a preschool for my daughter, playtime, learning empathy and being loved topped my list. And no rote learning.

“If child is not learning to read, that’s okay,” Heather Duncan Whitt said. “The switch is not on. We’re forcing them to do something that they shouldn’t do until 6 or 7 when all the things, generally speaking, fit together to learn to read.”
“If child is not learning to read, that’s okay,” Heather Duncan Whitt said. “The switch is not on. We’re forcing them to do something that they shouldn’t do until 6 or 7 when all the things, generally speaking, fit together to learn to read.”

I love my daughter’s home-based preschool.

In the summer, the teacher creates a relaxing garden with mint to which the children can take their books. They participate in project-based activities such as monitoring baby chicks, growing vegetables and making dough. Several days a week, my daughter learns words like “rojo” and “vaca.”

She can recite poetry and tell you who Daniel Hale Williams and Madame C.J. Walker are.

She also has learned how to share.

Skye, who turns 4 this week, has been going to this South Side school since she turned 2. I was very intentional in what I wanted emphasized; the emotional is just as important as educational at this age. In my preschool search, playtime, learning empathy and being loved on by staff topped my list. No rote learning.

When I did a site visit, I told the teacher my goal wasn’t for Skye to read by 3. There’s nothing wrong with early readers, but I did not want to pressure her so that I could brag. And I did not want a school that assigns homework to someone who can’t pee by herself.

In certain quarters, finding a “perfect” preschool rivals the Chicago Public Schools selective enrollment “Hunger Games” competition. For me, the goalpost for quality early childhood education wasn’t my daughter’s acceptance into a handful of “perfect” schools that require testing for kindergarten.

My friend Heather Duncan Whitt taught preschool at South Shore Fine Arts Academy, a CPS school, where she received a 2018 Golden Apple for Excellence in Teaching Award. Despite her credentials, I’ve seen people argue her down on Facebook about how important it is for their preschool child to read — right now.

“I know children who started to read at 3,” Duncan Whitt, who is now director of early learning at the Collaboration for Early Childhood in Oak Park, told me. “A switch was on, and that’s cool. You should not hold back.

“But if child is not learning to read, that’s okay,” she said. “The switch is not on. We’re forcing them to do something that they shouldn’t do until 6 or 7 when all the things, generally speaking, fit together to learn to read.”

A program that’s objectively wonderful still might not be the right fit for your child or your family. As parents do their research, Duncan Whitt said, they should remember what early childhood education really should be.

“Joyful, brain-building and work-appropriate to their age,” she said. “Historically, early childhood has evolved from a place to hold kids while adults were not around to something that’s actually supposed to enrich their lives. That evolution has been slow, with fits and starts, because people have their own opinions of what early childhood education is. The point of what you’re doing with children can’t be cuteness. It should be about enriching their thought process.”

As Duncan Whitt said: Creativity, discovery and positivity.

I am forever grateful for what my daughter receives at school. She is bright, eager and curious. I didn’t need a public health crisis for me to appreciate Skye’s hardworking teachers who nurture her.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many parents are struggling to keep their children occupied while they work from home. We are all coping with anxiety during these uncertain times. Duncan Whitt said she’s also heard from parents who are freaking out that their children won’t be academically ready for kindergarten during this stay-at-home period.

Don’t worry about that, she said. Self-regulation is more important.

Ask yourself if your child can sit still or work independently, especially since they aren’t around other children right now. This is a good time to have your child practice putting on her coat or his shoes.

And for sanity’s sake, Duncan Whitt said, food-based projects can be a good way to approach homeschooling. Baking requires science and measurements.

Let children record themselves on your cell phone as they tell or read a story in front of a pretend classroom.

Or give them a household projects. Duncan Whitt suggested one that she’s used with her children. I gladly accepted the tip.

Skye just finished sorting all of the silverware in the kitchen.

I got ten minutes of free time.

Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.org.

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