Live it!: Preschool ... and what your child can gain from it
Elsie Scheele is tall for her age, with deep blue eyes and a caramel mane that’s beginning to darken a shade.
She sits coloring at an oversized dining room table in her family’s 1940s-era home on Willmar’s southwest side.
She delicately runs the tip of her black pencil against the thick outline of a tiger’s face on the small piece of paper before her. She swaps black for orange then swiftly reverts back to black, gently resting her head against the dorsal side of her hand.
It’s a lesson in contentment.
Elsie’s mom, Melissa, sits in earshot on a tan couch.
On the coffee table rests a copy of “The Jesus Storybook Bible,” a tome that refashions biblical stories for young children.
Although she won’t be 5 for a couple of months, Elsie already holds the book in reverence. Later, she’ll ask her mom to read the tale of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector.
Melissa leans back and glances at her daughter.
“She’s grown leaps and bounds,” she says, as she shuffles back into a position of comfort. “When Elsie was 3, we were like ‘We’re going to try it out.’ But she was such an introvert, that we really weren’t sure if she was going to enjoy it. … And she didn’t. She was miserable the first two weeks. She would cry everyday. But then things started to change. And by the end of the year, preschool hadn’t just helped with her academic development, it helped her socially.”
The proverbial preschool discussion is a loaded one, with a myriad of factors for parents to consider: Is our child ready developmentally? What school or facility offers the best program? How do we pick a program? Can we afford it?
The majority of children begin attending preschool between ages 3 and 4, though programs are offered for those as young as 2½. Cost of the programs varies and often is determined by the number of days and time the child spends in class.
Preschool teaches children to interact in group settings, better identify letters, numbers, sounds, shapes and objects, how to count in sequence, and to draw and color, all skills required for a successful transition to kindergarten.
Elsie attends a three-day-a-week preschool program at Community Christian School in Willmar, a private, interdenominational school for children ages 3 through 12th grade.
The decision to send her to CCS was multilayered for the Scheeles: Melissa taught science at the school before becoming part owner of Darling Clementine, a home goods store on Willmar’s South First Street; her husband, Nathan, is CCS’ Christian Life director; and the elder of the couple’s two daughters, 9-year-old Chloe, is enrolled there.
The Scheeles are also devout Christians and have traveled as missionaries to some of the most indigent villages of the Third World. They also believe faith and academia go hand-in-hand.
“We want our children in a place where they incorporate Jesus into learning,” Melissa says. “Eventually, Elsie is going to be there for up to eight hours a day, nine months a year. It’s important her learning environment is an extension of her home environment.”
In the classroom
The walls of Tracy Borstad’s preschool classroom are lined with a bold collage. A glance at the protracted corridor visible through the open class door offers a similar scene.
This assortment of varying art pieces boasts the names of the more than three dozen 3-, 4- and 5-years-olds who each week enter Tracy’s classroom and that of fellow CCS preschool teacher Shayla Honken: Nathan, Jovial, Greta, Lily, Emma, Jacob and Carter are but a few.
“I guess we feel if the students know the teachers are proud of their work, they, too, will feel pride in what they do,” Tracy says. “It’s an easy way for us to acknowledge their creativity and help them build self-worth.”
On this clement Wednesday in March, the school is observing the birth 112 years prior of the late famed children’s author and illustrator Dr. Seuss. The man will be referenced repeatedly during class.
Tracy is completing her 13th year teaching at CCS. She has developed an untroubled teaching style, Melissa says, one that puts her students — of whom Elsie is one — at ease.
The class begins with play period that forthwith leads to unabashed calls of “Teacher, teacher, come watch” and “Look, Mrs. Borstad. Look what I can do.” She invariably obliges.
And then the flock disperses to favored nooks.
Jaydan Lara gets sucked in by a counting game that incorporates varicolored Goldfish snacks to complete the task. She smiles playfully as she sneaks a couple of the treats into her mouth.
Elsewhere, Emma Willms thumbs through a bookcase, spinning a yarn on the famed rhyming tale of a pesky feline in a red-striped hat; Greta Nelson adds a shade of color resembling cherry blossom pink to a picture of a cupcake she’s been working on; Lucy Robison ponders why the yellow cotton leash of a stuffed Clifford the Big Red Dog toy is fraying; and Nathan Benson, as spirited as his hair is red, takes ownership of a small slide and climbing rig assembled in the room’s center.
“It’s important to keep them active,” Tracy says. “Obviously, all kids have different learning styles. But in preschool, much of their learning style is formed through activity. They need to be hands-on. So it’s important they have this time interspersed with their class activities.”
Later, they’ll perform an interactive musical diversion and use finger puppets for a themed letters game.
Then comes a prayer and circle time, during which Tracy reads aloud “Go Away, Big Green Monster.” The story teaches the children to combat their fears.
The changing face
Kindergarten marks the beginning of a child’s formal education and can acutely impact how they view school and their place in it. Thus, the role preschool plays in kindergarten readiness is essential, according to Kathy Voss, a kindergarten teacher at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar.
“Students who attend some type of preschool, whether it is in-home daycare or public preschool, gain exposure to academic concepts and skills that will help them throughout the entire school year,” Kathy says.
Kathy has been with the Willmar School District since 1987 and witnessed academics come to dominate kindergarten as more emphasis was placed on standardized testing during the No Child Left Behind era. A 2014 report in the Washington Post even looked at the rebranding of kindergarten as the new first grade.
While “constructive playtime, movement and fun activities” remain aspects of a kindergarten classroom, Kathy says today’s youngest students are exposed to a more rigorous curriculum of reading comprehension, sentence structure and basic mathematics. By the end of the year, her students are expected to peruse rudimentary books, write straightforward narratives, complete mathematical equations and count to 100, she says.
And, like preschool, determining when to send a child to kindergarten can pose quite the parental quandary.
Minnesota guidelines state a child must turn 5 prior to or on Sept. 1 of the calendar year when school begins. However, Tracy says it’s not uncommon for parents of students who turn 5 during the late summer months to keep their child in preschool an extra year to ensure they are developmentally on par for the kindergarten environment.
“It’s an individual thing, obviously,” she says. “But we’ve seen that trend with parents who might be nervous their child isn’t where they need to be.”
Parents can also glean some insight into their child’s readiness through prerequisite screenings for kindergarten enrollment.
For Melissa, she has no qualms about Elsie’s preparedness; she’ll begin kindergarten at CCS in the fall.
“We’re more than comfortable with where she is at academically and socially,” Melissa says. “We worked on a lot of stuff here at home, too. And she knows her letters and most of her numbers. She can count to ... gosh, I don’t know how high. She’s focused and well-prepared for kindergarten, we believe.”
Dan Burdett is the lead writer for Live it! Magazine. You can email Dan at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter@danburdett1