If you're opening a new preschool, or planning to revamp an old preschool curriculum, one of the most important (yet daunting) tasks is sifting through all the buzzwords that surround early education -- play-based, emergent curriculum, kindergarten readiness, Montessori, Reggio -- and deciding on teaching methods that are developmentally appropriate and engaging. This guide will help you design a preschool curriculum and daily routine that accomplishes the goal of any high quality preschool: to promote creativity, curiosity, problem-solving, empathy, and social-emotional growth.
Choosing an Educational Philosophy
As an educator, you may be well aware that young children learn through play. But there's been a big push, in the United States at least, to start "academic" learning before it's developmentally appropriate. In many kindergarten classrooms, 5-year-olds are expected to sit still for long periods of time, quietly listen to teachers, and read and write before they may be ready. Play-based preschools are en vogue, but there can still be pressure to prepare children for the increasingly academic rigors of kindergarten.
It can be helpful to choose a well-known educational philosophy to shape your play-based program around -- think Montessori or Reggio -- so that parents and staff have buy-in upfront. You can even borrow from multiple philosophies. My cooperative preschool, Oak Leaf, is simultaneously nature-based and Reggio-inspired, with a little bit of Montessori thrown in (we are opening a mixed-age class and will emphasize responsibility and independence.) Below is a brief breakdown of several popular play-based teaching philosophies. For a more detailed look, read Types of Preschools. If you need help getting off the ground, check out How to Start a Preschool.
This approach originated in Italy and is synonymous with "emergent curriculum" -- the concept of shaping activities around children's interests and multiple intelligences. Teachers learn and explore alongside children, making observations and taking careful note of emerging interests. The learning environment, whether inside the classroom or outdoors, is considered an additional teacher, so careful thought is given to designing a stimulating, developmentally appropriate space. The day begins with provocations, or "invitations to play" -- baskets of loose parts and other items for free play and inquiry. During morning assemblies, children discuss what they plan to work on for the day, and will often recruit other children to join their projects. Documentation -- photo displays and classroom art gallery exhibits -- capture the learning process. If there's any philosophy that embodies the "process over product" approach, it's Reggio.
In Montessori preschools, children practice responsibility and independence in mixed-age settings. Three to six year olds are typically grouped together in one classroom, and learn through hands-on exploration for long blocks of time -- sometimes several hours -- with teachers stepping back to observe. Children develop real-world skills such as cleaning up, putting on jackets or mittens, washing hands, and watering plants. Play and hands-on exploration driven by children's skill level and interest are considered a child's "work." There is little direct teacher instruction. Montessori accreditation is a rigorous, multi-year process, but preschools may use the Montessori label -- perhaps marketing themselves as "Montessori-inspired" without accreditation.
Waldorf kindergartens, as these preschools are known, focus on learning through the five senses. Tactile projects, such as kneading bread dough, are a common feature of Waldorf programs. Classrooms are cozy and home-like, and children have freedom to splash in mud, climb trees, and balance on logs. New programs are typically founded by Waldorf-trained educators. There are a handful of Waldorf training programs throughout the United States and Canada; the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America offers more information on preparation programs for teachers.
Creating a Positive Classroom Environment
Over the summer, I took an eye-opening course on the guidance approach to behavior management. Much like the popular "conscious discipline" strategy, this approach puts the onus on teachers to guide children towards appropriate, positive behaviors. In preschool, children are learning how to socialize with peers and regulate their emotions, and all of this takes practice. Mistakes are bound to happen. It is up to teachers to create classroom environments that minimize "mistaken behavior," the preferred term for misbehavior.
Provide varied, print-rich spaces for children to play in, both indoors and out. Display books, signs, and labels wherever you can -- and make crayons and paper readily available for children to create their own signs. Some teachers feel strongly about keeping interest areas -- such as art, music, science, and literacy -- distinct and limiting the number of children that can gather at an area at one time. This approach has its advantages in terms of classroom management; children can explore one interest area in depth before moving on, in an orderly fashion, to a learning center that has space available.
I personally believe that play should be allowed to cross over fluidly from one interest area to another. For example, a child can experiment with using a dried flower or stick from the science center as a paintbrush, or expand imaginative play by building a block tower in the dramatic play area. This type of play-based learning tends to work well outdoors. For my nature-based family enrichment class, I provide baskets of materials -- paint brushes, water, chalk, yarn, acorns, pine cones, sticks, seeds, leaves, dried flowers, mini pumpkins, tree cookies, popsicle sticks, stuffed animals and animal figurines -- and let children engage with the items however they wish. I've watched preschoolers place chalk in water and observe bubbles form as the chalk sinks to the bottom of the bucket, then fish the chalk out to draw with.
Nature is calming. Be sure to bring plants -- or even animals, such as pet fish -- into the classroom, and better yet, spend as much time outside as possible, on school grounds or field trips to local parks and nature areas.
Start the Day Right
This may be common sense, but it's worth pointing out that an enthusiastic teacher greeting -- a cheerful, "good morning! I'm so happy you're in school today!" -- makes children feel welcome and sets a positive tone for the day. Children feel secure when they have a general sense of what to expect regarding the flow of the day, so always stick with basic routines -- such as breakfast or snack after greeting time, followed by morning meeting -- and display a picture schedule that children can refer to.
Plenty of Time to Play
Play, whether outdoors or in the classroom, should make up the bulk of the daily schedule. Keep teacher-led activities, such as morning meetings or circle time, as short as possible. Children need plenty of opportunities to move their bodies, so circle time activities that incorporate movement, such as interactive story time or songs with movement, are key.
Calendar and Weather
Skip calendar and weather routines. These staple morning meeting rituals mean very little to young children. Preschoolers struggle with identifying days of the week because they do not have a fully developed understanding of time the way adults and older children do. Some children do not truly grasp the concept of calendars, and their relationship to past and future events, until age 10.
Daily repetition will not improve a preschooler's understanding of the calendar, because the routine is developmentally inappropriate and simply a frustrating exercise in guesswork (at worst) or rote memorization (at best.)
To explore the concepts of past, present, and future, display a visual calendar that marks key activities that have occurred in the classroom each day, and whenever the opportunity arises, ask children what they will be doing after school, or what they ate for dinner the previous day. An excellent article, Calendar Time For Young Children: Good Intentions Gone Awry, suggests counting the days children have been in school by adding links to a paper chain.
Identifying whether a day is sunny or cloudy also feels irrelevant to children, unless connected to something tangible. Children can learn about weather in a concrete way by spending time outdoors, or discussing how weather relates to their lives, i.e. "What clothes did you wear on your way to school to stay warm on this cold, snowy day?"
Plan a schedule with as few transitions as possible, especially those involving long lines; when a dozen children are waiting in line to wash their hands, some are bound to become restless and act out. Transitions happen quickly and smoothly when all adults in the classroom plan ahead and know their role.
To help children prepare for transitions, provide visual cues. For instance, before free play in interest areas, teachers can share laminated cards displaying the names of different learning centers, and review the choices with children. Teachers should build in enough time during transitions for children to clean up and store their work, and also provide something for children to do if they finish cleaning up early and are waiting for the next activity.
Teachers can turn transitions into learning opportunities by singing songs and playing word games while children wait, for example, to go outside to the playground. After transitions, it's helpful to acknowledge children's efforts, through encouragement or high fives.
Cozy corners, or getaway spaces, are a must-have in every preschool classroom. These are welcoming areas that children can retreat to when a bustling classroom environment becomes overwhelming. Encouraging children to use a getaway space when tired and overstimulated can help reduce aggressive behavior and meltdowns. Children, particularly those with special needs, benefit from recharging away from the rest of the class, even just for a few minutes. Getaway spaces should never be used punitively, for time-outs. Ideally, children will learn to make their way to a cozy corner on their own, but teachers can also provide gentle encouragement before overstimulation triggers a full-blown tantrum.
Ideal cozy corners allow children to feel alone, while still able to peek out to see what the rest of the class is doing. Translucent curtains, or an outdoor playhouse with windows, would do the trick. Consider furnishing the space with soft materials -- a couch, plush pillows, a rug, and stuffed animals -- and including a small bookshelf, and some paper and crayons for drawing. When I taught Pre-K at a public school, I displayed my classroom feelings chart -- which children can use to identify their emotions -- near the cozy corner, and decorated a couch with emoji pillows, which served as a good talking point for children's big feelings. Plants are also a great addition to a getaway space. I've noticed that touching and watering plants can be very therapeutic, particularly for children with special needs.
True learning takes place when activities are open-ended or encourage problem-solving. My twin sons recently came home from preschool with cotton balls glued to a sheep cutout, and a paper apple splotched with red paint. These "product-oriented" art projects are cute, but expecting children to copy a teacher's model can lead to frustration and hinder children's creative confidence because the projects have, in effect, a right or wrong answer. Children thrive and are in their element when they can follow their interests, explore, experiment, and focus on the process without any pressure to complete a specific product. Ideally, about half of a classroom's materials should be open-ended, and the remaining half should be problem-based.
Self-expressive materials, such as blocks, paints, playdough, and dramatic play furniture and props, eliminate the frustration and pressure attached to completing an activity with a right and wrong answer. Open-ended materials give children autonomy to explore their interests, experiment, and create at their own pace. Without any pressure to produce a specific product, children can enjoy the creative and imaginative process, and are less likely to act out due to boredom, frustration, or a lack of confidence in their intellectual abilities.
Stock your classrooms or outdoor spaces with loose parts from nature -- rocks, sticks, pine cones, acorns -- or better yet, collect these materials with children. You will be amazed at the creative play scenarios that emerge, and the math, science, and literacy skills children can pick up from simple, natural materials.
Puzzles, sorting trays, and experiments provide opportunities for children to express their natural inquisitiveness by solving problems, making discoveries, or accomplishing a task, such as completing a puzzle or seeing the result of a science experiment. This can be as simple as providing children with buckets of water and encouraging them to test whether various items, such as rocks, sticks, feathers, pumpkins, or leaves, sink or float.
How do you transform a group of 3- or 4-year-old strangers into a close-knit classroom family that celebrates and respects differences? I've found class mascots or puppets to be extremely useful. Children bond over their interactions with the mascot, and the mascot's daily appearance becomes a ritual that children look forward to as a group. When I taught Pre-K at a public school, we had a class pet, which the children named and took care of together, and a puppet that made an appearance at Circle Time. While teaching at a co-op preschool in Michigan, I used a pigeon stuffy, modeled after the character in Mo Willems' popular Pigeon series, which we read during story time, to build community in virtual classes during the Covid-19 pandemic. And during my weekly family enrichment class, at a nature area, a stuffed animal squirrel makes an appearance. Children named and took turns interacting with these mascots, developing brainstorming and sharing skills in the process.
In general, activities that involve brainstorming and voting unite children as a class, teach the importance of respecting different opinions, and set an early foundation for civic engagement. In multiple early childhood settings, I've had success with an apple tasting and graphing activity, in which children sample different types of apples -- make sure to choose a variety of colors and sizes, and discuss how they are the same and different -- vote on their favorites, and graph the number of votes based on apple type. Children can then visually identify which apple is the most popular in that particular class, and discuss why they liked and didn't like certain apples. Emphasize that it is perfectly normal to have different preferences.
If there's any skill a child should begin to develop in preschool, it's conflict resolution. There are different schools of thought regarding when and how much teachers should intervene, but children certainly benefit from some form of teacher modeling and guidance.
The Five Finger Formula -- in which teachers mediate conflicts by helping children calm down and brainstorm their own solutions to a problem -- and peace props, such as talking sticks, puppets, and chairs for sitting and talking, are all helpful.
Teachers can also assist by modeling how to use specific language to describe feelings surrounding a conflict. It's not enough to tell children to "use your words, not your hands." Children need to be guided towards explaining to a peer exactly what is bothering them, i.e. "I don't like when you pull on my jacket." This allows children to self-regulate and use words to resolve a conflict.
Whichever intervention strategies you prefer, make sure teachers do not rush to solve problems for children, by immediately taking away an object children are fighting over, or demanding apologies. The goal is not to resolve a conflict quickly, or even prevent conflict at all, but to teach lifelong negotiation skills. As with every aspect of a developmentally appropriate preschool, it's all about process over product.
Liana is the founder and president of Oak Leaf Cooperative School, a nature-based preschool launching soon in the Chicago area. She is also a blogger, content writer for Jovial, and proud mom of twin toddlers.