Preschooler Caroline Harrison dropped a marble down the mouth of a ramp made of wooden blocks, watching as it rolled down the initial slope and toward the first turn.
Her teacher, Matthew Roszkowski, made whooshing sounds as the marble navigated each turn before catching it at the end of the ramp.
“Yay!” Caroline said, jumping up and down.
Around her, Discovery Day Academy’s STEM lab buzzed with activity as other students organized toys according to sense and sifted through bins of rocks, using a magnifying glass to get a closer look.
Aimed at giving preschoolers a hands-on, age-appropriate introduction to science, technology, engineering and math, the lab helps put the Bonita Springs school at the forefront of a push toward integrating the subjects before children even enter kindergarten. That means preschool today looks a lot different from preschool of 20, and even 10, years ago. It’s no longer considered a day care.
“This is when we have the ability to develop children’s’ ability to think like scientists and to really have reasoning behind what they believe,” said Elizabeth Garcia, who started the Bonita Springs school last year after launching two similar programs in Hendry County.
As the state moves toward adopting the more rigorous common core standards for K-12 and kindergarten tackles more advanced material, it’s especially important that early learning keeps up, Garcia said.
“What are we doing to prepare children for that environment?” she said.
Most educators agree that ensuring students are well-versed in science, technology, engineering and math is critically important to ensure they keep pace with their international peers and are prepared for the type of jobs available down the line. But the focus has mainly been on K-12 students.
Preschools have traditionally focused on literacy — reading to children and ensuring they know their ABC’s — and placed little emphasis on STEM areas. Changing that can be a daunting challenge.
Florida lags behind other states in the amount of funding available per preschool child and in the amount of training required for preschool teachers.
Only summer VPK programs require teachers to hold bachelor’s degrees, the national benchmark for prekindergarten programs as set by the National Institute for Early Education Research. School-year programs require a child development credential, or CDA.
The public perception, Garcia said, is that early learning centers serve as a day care, a place where children are baby-sat for the day.
At Discovery Day Academy, she’s tried to combat that, going beyond state requirements by hiring only teachers who hold at least bachelor’s degrees and telling parents that Discovery Day is a center of early learning, not a day care center.
The term ‘day care’ is outdated, said Elizabeth Elliott, an early childhood education professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and expert on the topic.
“I don’t like the word ‘day care’ anymore,” she said. “We don’t do day care anymore. We do early learning for young children.”
Florida has taken major strides in its efforts to prepare children for kindergarten since launching its free voluntary prekindergarten, or VPK, program in 2006. The program has grown to enroll 76 percent of 4-year-olds, making it No. 1 in the country for access.
Local educators and researchers now agree that students are behind if they don’t attend a quality prekindergarten program.
“It’s a sad thing to say: kindergarten is too late,” said Kathleen Reynolds, CEO of the Southwest Florida Early Learning Coalition, which oversees the region’s early learning centers.
The state VPK program and its standards have evolved in its short life span, Elliott said. The state-defined standards for VPK programs, which providers must use when planning lessons, now include math and science requirements.
“We’re all being asked to educate the children more and prepare them more for what’s next,” said Franny Kain, director of Fun Time Early Childhood Academy in Naples.
She said kindergarten has gone from preparing children for elementary school to being part of elementary school, meaning preschool’s role is to ensure children are ready for elementary school.
Students are now expected to leave prekindergarten with a basic understanding of addition, subtraction, height, weight and length, an awareness of technology and knowledge of the alphabet.
“We’re recognizing that young children are capable and confident and able to learn,” Elliott said.
Before rolling the marble down the ramp, Caroline and another student tried a bouncy ball, which bumped into a block and knocked it over.
When Roszkowski asked why, the students were quick to respond.
“It’s too big,” they said.
In a nearby classroom, preschooler Kennedy Chaffee set handfuls of plastic teddy bear figurines on one side of a scale until it stopped tipping toward the apple on the other side. Her teacher, Allana Cardenas, asked how many bears it took to equal the apple and Kennedy counted to 36.
“How do you make 36?” Kennedy asked, holding a purple marker to an apple drawing from earlier that day.
“What’s the first number in 30?” Cardenas asked.Kennedy wrote the number ‘3’ next to the apple, and then added a six.
“Your six is backward,” the teacher said. “But that’s OK.”
Kennedy’s class was learning about apples, covering not just Johnny Appleseed but also the life cycle of an apple, its circumference and its weight.
“A traditional school may just read a story about leaves and paste some leaves on a letter ‘L,'” Garcia said. “We’re very different in our approach. We take a scientific route.”
Because STEM is relatively new to preschool, there is little long-term research on its impact on students.
But one major benefit of exposing children to science at a young age, Garcia said, is that it introduces subjects that can be daunting in a comfortable way.
The ramp Caroline experimented with, for instance, teaches introductory physics and engineering. The apple measurement teaches math skills.
And because it’s introduced to children in a comfortable way, it instills in them a passion for the subjects.
“If they develop that love for learning at an early age, they’ll always have it,” Garcia said.Link to article