We are so excited to have a child in our class or in our home who makes connections, thinks deeply and remembers things we didn’t know she or he knew. When this bright child asks a question, we want to answer fully – because we know the child can understand everything we tell them. We have a tendency to keep talking as their eyes glaze over and their bodies start to slump.
One year, back when I used to follow a planned math curriculum, it was “triangles week” but my highly capable preschoolers already knew their basic shapes. So I decided to teach three and four year olds to identify isosceles, equilateral and scalene triangles. I pounded away at the differences, having them sort the pile of triangles I had enthusiastically cut for them … until my co-teacher said, “Let’s just play with the triangles!” – cluing me in to the children’s vacant stares.
Our teachers often start an activity time on the rug, with the children circled around.
- Miss Annette might read a story
- Mr. Jerry might have the children act out an idea
- Miss Savita might demonstrate a science concept that the kids can’t explore themselves (ex., anything with heat)
- Miss Kasia might model part of an art activity (ex., how to turn the glue stick up “just a little bit”)
- Miss Erica might show them how to play a new math game
- Miss Kristen might get the children up and dancing
If the preschoolers are engaged, those teacher-led rug times might take ten minutes, but our guideline is:
When kids start rolling around on the rug, it’s time to move on
We have a “Three-Minute Rule” for content delivery at Bellevue Discovery. When a teacher has pre-determined that certain content is important to share, we get three minutes to be the sage on the stage. If kids are excited and ask questions, the three minutes can expand to five or seven … but only if the children are driving the conversation.
Here’s a good guideline for answering young children’s questions:
Answer in one or two sentences, then stop
Wait for a question or comment from the child. If the child doesn’t engage you can ask if he or she wants to know more. If you get a dreary, “OK,” the child is being polite but isn’t really open to learning more … so stop. If the child is engaged, you’ll know – you’ll feel like a rock star as the little one gazes at you with excitement, and wiggles his or her little body while peppering you with questions.
Sometimes young children are just done with passive learning. They can’t take any more. So stop.
The Three-Minute Rule helps us stay in the zone of engagement. We work with kids who love to learn, but like all of us, they prefer to learn things for themselves. So the teacher-determined content ends and the time for discovery begins.
This week our preschoolers’ problem to solve was:
“What can I discover when I dissect a dandelion?”
They arrived at the problem having already walked through the Pea Patch and role played planting a garden. They had planted lima beans, made terrariums with their families on Family Thursday, and read books about flowers, gardens, seeds and plants. They acted like bugs and pretended to sip nectar with straws. They collected pollen (pom poms) on their contact paper bracelets. Our focus literature was the lovely book Dandelions: Stars in the Grass by Mia Posada.
At our curriculum planning meeting our teachers previewed what dandelion dissections might look like:
- Some children would quickly pull apart their weed and be “done” – they would need a nudge to look again
- Some children would compare their dandelion precisely with the poster drawn by our Art Studio teacher, Miss Kristen
- Some children would point to flower parts and name them, fluidly using new vocabulary introduced during the “Three Minutes of Content”
- Some children would only be interested in the yellow petals, or the dirty roots, or the bug they found crawling on their flower
- Some children would focus on the texture of the leaves, or the sound the taproot makes when they snap it in two
If the children asked questions the teachers would answer them, but it would be a time for child discovery, not teacher-given content. The children were responsible for discovering something new.
A parent who transferred her child to Bellevue Discovery told us about her son’s previous traditional academic preschool:
Children learn by taking all their knowledge – what they hear, read, see and feel – and making sense of it on their own. They need to determine for themselves what information is valuable or their minds won’t retain the knowledge in a way they can use in the future.
There is a time to focus on content with young children, and it is active, hands-on, joyful and brief.
It’s hard to step back, clamp our mouths shut, and not point out that one more thing we desperately want them to know. We are still learning how to let the children lead their own learning at Bellevue Discovery.
“The flowers are slippery inside.”
“I think I see silver and golden purple.”
“It’s a closed flower.”
“Inside the root is white.”
“Pretend your hand is a magnifying glass to look at it.”
“These yellow petals … like cat’s fur.”
“It looks like a carrot.”
“I’m pulling apart the sepal.”