People often ask me the difference between First United Methodist Preschool and other preschool programs, which is sometimes hard to put into words. After so many years of association with FUMP, it is like family to me, and so many of our values are intrinsic to me now. There is so much jargon thrown around these days that it is challenging to clearly define FUMP in terms that are meaningful and accessible to parents. After reflecting on the question on what makes FUMP an exemplary program for children, one clear distinction recently came to mind.
Currently, the atmosphere in education reflects an emphasis on such items as accountability, testing, outcomes, and state-defined curriculum. As we are teaching young children and preparing them for such an environment, we are often questioned about our methods to align children’s progress with the expectation for kindergarten and beyond. To explain this, we must first back up and clarify FUMP’s true background and basis.
Our mission statement states that First United Methodist Preschool strives to create an atmosphere for children to grow physically, cognitively, socially, emotionally and spiritually. While that defines our goals for the program, it reflects the even deeper commitment we have to children.
FUMP philosophy, curriculum and goals are based on the tenets of child development. Child development is the study of each area of human development: physical, cognitive, social, emotional and language and with the understanding that each child moves through a predictable sequence of development. You are most familiar with this concept in the infant stages of physical development: first a baby rolls over, sits, crawls, pulls up and then walks. We can expect each child to move through each predictable stage in sequential order in every domain of development, with individual variances in the timetable at which each child attains each new milestone. Some children will learn to walk at 9 months and others at 14 months, both of which are considered within the normal range. Knowing that basis, we can better examine FUMP’s approach.
“Academics” in the preschool setting
One evolution that has taken place today is the best practices during the preschool years, which have been based on child development theory, are now being replaced with education instructional methods. Fifty years ago, children often began school in first grade. Kindergarten is now universal. Further, 65% of four year olds attend school. The issue that greatly concerns me is that the approach in many four-year-old classrooms is full of expectations based on education practices, rather than child development.
Think back: children used to begin school around ages 6-7. That age was selected, because children develop into the concrete operation stage of cognitive development. Children are able to read, use logic, have representational thinking, and understand more sophisticated concepts. Now we find that traditional education methods have trickled down their expectations to younger and younger children, most of which are not developmentally ready for the tasks. While children will display some level of “mastery”, oftentimes the knowledge is rote and without true understanding of the concept. Think of the YouTube videos with toddlers reciting all of the US Presidents names in order. While adorable for friends and grandparents, it does not put them on the fast track to becoming a historian. They have merely attained rote knowledge.
At FUMP, teachers present concepts and experiences in ways that are authentic and meaningful to children; through a hands-on, open-ended, active-learning basis. Think of an apple. How best would you learn about an apple as a preschooler: a worksheet with a silhouette of an apple shape? Or a basket full of apples that you see, touch, taste, smell and even hear as you take a bite. We could teach your children to recite the numerals to 100, but we seek to teach them to actually count 10 objects, as we based our expectations on developmental milestones. Again, we prioritize children attaining a deeper understanding of the world around them, to create the firm foundation for future learning.
The teacher’s role in the classroom
To reiterate, our knowledge of child development tells us that children will move through childhood stages at their own pace and the teacher’s role is to recognize, support and embrace that development. This occurs as naturally and orderly, such as the infant learning to walk. Their primary goal is to provide an environment to enhance that development through the materials, equipment and concepts that they select for their classroom. Further, within a child development framework, teachers view each child’s progress on a continuum of development, supporting that child as they move through stages at their own rate and pace. Teachers seek to create a curriculum that provides balance of experiences that give children a sense of both mastery and challenge. We want children to have experiences of both success and expose them to new concepts as their development unfolds.
Each teacher comes to know and understand the individual children in their class and further tailor their curriculum to incorporate the individual differences that occur with development and the particular interests that the children hold (One year’s class may be fascinated with insects and the next year’s class is intrigued by tractors.) We do not purchase a prescribed pre-packaged curriculum, but rather, teachers use this knowledge to development relevant, meaningful activities for their classroom.
One mechanism that enhances the teachers’ knowledge of individual children’s development and their interests is our low teacher-to-child ratio. We pride ourselves on staying at or below the recommended teacher to child ratios for recognized and accredited programs. For example, our prekindergarten classes have a ratio of 1:8, while AISD prekindergarten classrooms have a 1:19 ratio. The level of personal attention that your child receives at FUMP is above and beyond what area preschool programs offer.
To further articulate the teacher’s role in promoting learning, we again turn to child development. The developmental theorist, Vygotsky, has defined the term “zone of proximal development” (ZDP) as the sweet spot between what a child can do naturally and the potential learning/accomplishments with outside assistance. When we speak of teachers as facilitators in the classroom, their essential role is to fulfill the ZPD and assist children to reach their next level. FUMP teachers recognize children’s current abilities, what developmental stage is emerging, and thoughtfully intervene to promote learning and development.
Our goals for children at FUMP
To use a simplistic definition, the focus of traditional education is to develop specific cognitive skills in children (reading, writing, math, and science). The skills that children are expected to acquire are based on state mandates, within state timelines, with little regard for individual differences. Further, many activities in education are drawn from methods designed for older children who learn in more developed (representational) ways: flash cards, worksheets, rote memorization. Oftentimes, children are expected to produce “work”, without the true knowledge behind a concept. FUMP gives children true, authentic learning experiences about the tangible, meaningful world around them, laying the foundation for future conceptual learning.
We respectfully provide support to the next step in each child’s developmental progress, rather than plummeting headlong down the path of later goals. Think back to the infant who learns to roll, sit, crawl, and walk as they age into their abilities. We watch and support such growth as it unfolds, without arbitrary dates of accomplishments assigned to any particular task. Another example is that we don’t require children to be toilet trained by a certain age; we trust that the child will learn that skill at their natural pace. We follow suit with other milestones, such as reading, writing, attention span, etc. In the event that a child sprints ahead of typical milestones, our teachers can easily incorporate those accomplishments into the classroom, as they are not tied to a prescribed curriculum.
We strive to support children’s development, placing equal weight on academics, physical development and social/emotional growth. This gives children tools to be successful beyond just academics ; through well-developed peer problem solving skills, self-sufficiency in the classroom setting, following multi-step directions, managing and expressing emotions in a constructive manner, and the list can go on and on. We see children’s development as a complete system, rather than individual or isolated accomplishments in the cognitive domain.
So, what is your philosophy?
In a nutshell, we take from the best of the best. Each model has is its strengths and FUMP embraces the best aspects of each one. We implement a well-rounded curriculum that blends many features of each. We are most deeply rooted in John Dewey’s theories of hands-on, active, authentic learning for young children. We use Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development in guiding the teacher’s role. We embrace Maria Montessori’s method of children self-selecting activities geared to children’s developmental level. We use Reggio Emilia’s practice of incorporating real life learning experiences, as the children learn self help skills at mealtimes. The list can go on and on.
We have created a child-centered program where classroom and policy decisions are made based on what provides the most meaningful and authentic experience for children. We stand by the time-tested child development theories of child development and embrace them in our classrooms daily. We steadfastly continue this approach, despite the trend to push children into “academics” as young as three years of age. We create a haven for children to explore, create, and enjoy each moment of early childhood, and proudly send them off to elementary school with all of the skills and knowledge for challenges that lay ahead.
We are so glad you chose FUMP and support our approach. Nothing makes us more proud of the work we do with your children each day.