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Discover Joyful Learning

“Why am I paying for my children to play? They can do that at home for free.”

Perhaps this has crossed your mind when hearing about Sayre’s commitment to “Learning through Play” in its earliest grades. In fact, Sayre’s new Lower School building was designed with play in mind. An innovation room filled with open-ended building materials is located on the second floor. With the flip of a switch, the science room wall will open to an outdoor lab space. The hallways are wide enough for tricycles and wagons to move freely. The Common Room, located at the end of the first floor, is flooded with light and offers a large space for play, projects, and performances. There are three playgrounds and access to an entire gymnasium. Sayre’s Lower School was built for children and offers these little people the space to play and to experience the utter joy of learning.

So perhaps the thought about play and learning might change when you know “Learning through Play” means:

Learning through projects,
Learning through experimentation,
Learning through cooperation,
Learning through the creation of hypotheses,
Learning through recording and analyzing data,
Learning through role playing,
Learning through the acquisition of an advanced vocabulary which can immediately be put to use during play, and
Learning through the articulation of observations.

A day in Sayre’s Preschool will dispel any reservation you might have about learning through play and project work and will solidify the idea that learning is filled with wonder. It will convince you learning is dynamic. You can witness the questions, the observations, and the analysis of children as young as two. This learning is not arduous; children are not slogging through worksheets. Here learning is a joint effort among friends. Here learning is fun.

In October, the Pre-K 2 class began studying fish. The classroom was filled with pictures of various fish, the lyrics of “5 Little Fish,” and student-created coral reefs. The Pre-K 3 class was exploring the elements of a farm from the animals to the equipment to the produce. Even music was incorporated. Children armed with two music sticks sat cross legged on the carpet. All was quiet until music began and their teacher asked them to “wake up their sticks.” The sticks began to beat out a rhythm, first “presto,” and then “largo,” as the children began mimicking the cadence of specific animals. Across and down the hall, the 4-year-olds were using clipboards to record their observations regarding which objects would float and which would sink. Experiments were conducted, data recorded, and results articulated to the group gathered in a circle on the carpet. Throughout the classrooms, students were working with numbers, letters, and sounds in their natural context. In each class, every child was engaged, every child was heard, and students and teachers worked seamlessly together in the pursuit of common goals: deep knowledge and meaningful skill development all in the context of community.

A stroll in and out of the classrooms provides a glimpse into the lives of the smallest Spartans, but a walk through the halls of Sayre’s Preschool shows the method behind the learning. On each board lining the halls, there is an overview of their work. Yes, there are the drawings and photographs that will eventually find their way to refrigerators and cork boards across the region, but there is also a description of Phase I, Phase II, and Phase III. These terms, so familiar when reading lab reports, are the foundations of young children’s project work.

In Phase I, students brainstorm about a topic. They determine what they already know. Then the children make a web of questions they want answered and information they want to gather. In Phase II, teacher and students reexamine their web, determine the new skills and concepts they will need to acquire, and prepare for fieldwork. Phase II is the investigation phase. This is the time during which students take field trips, listen to experts, and represent what they have learned. This is the stage during which writing, drawing, and reading are done, constructions are built, and dramatic play is designed. Further, students are asked to revisit their findings, to identify new questions, and perhaps to investigate a bit more. Phase III is the culmination of the project. Students share their stories and their findings. Yet, like all scientists, as students review the work they have done and disseminate their findings, new questions arise and the cycle of inquiry, discovery, and play begins anew.

In a recent article published in The Wall Street Journal, Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle commented on the lessons the United States can learn from Finland’s educational system, ranked #1 in the world for childhood education by the World Economic Forum and UNICEF. “Rather than pursuing standardized-test data as the Holy Grail of education, Finland focuses on equity, happiness, well-being, and joy in learning as the foundation of education.” The article addresses the rising incidence of anxiety and stress among even our youngest students. It concludes with the following, derived from not only their research but also announcements from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “We should take a lesson from Finland, follow doctors’ orders and build our schools, homes, and communities on the learning language of children: play.”

Ms. Jacki Neistat, Sayre’s Head of Lower School, would agree. “Observing children who are engaged in project work is an exciting experience. Children who learn through this level of play build language skills, knowledge, and collaboration. They are creating a strong foundation to be lifelong learners. Teachers and parents are facilitators of this journey, while the students are stewards of their learning. At its culmination, each project allows for individual discoveries and a feeling of accomplishment for the entire classroom community."  The engaged chatter and smiling faces that fill the classrooms and halls certainly indicate these children are taking her words to heart.

Yes, Ms. Neistat and her colleagues in the Lower School create an environment filled with the wonder and joy of learning, and in the end, isn’t that what we all want for our children… and ourselves?

By Heidi Newman