Palliser’s young learners too busy having fun to realize just how much they’re learning
There is joyful noise coming from the kindergarten class at Sunnyside School, northeast of Lethbridge, where 19 children are ending their school day with free play time.
Some are gathered around a plastic wading pool “fishing” for letters and plastic fish using magnetic rods. Others are dressing up in costumes, while one young entrepreneur is scribbling food orders on a notepad before hustling back to the kitchen centre to “cook.”
The busiest centre is a writing table, where children are “reading” step-by-step instructions on how to draw an octopus. “Mine only has six legs,” one young artist says, before sketching two more.
The teacher and lone adult at the centre of this high-energy gathering is Mona Slusar, who quickly navigates from group to group, offering encouragement and occasionally negotiating a truce when turn-taking goes off the rails.
The fishing pond is a new addition to the classroom, and earlier in the day, Slusar had students fishing for “popcorn words,” like “the” or “and” that pop up frequently in print.
Slusar holds up the popcorn word “it.”
“Are you going to try to catch a ‘W’?” Slusar asks.
“No!” her students yell in unison.
With about a month left in the school year, these students recognize their printed names, know letter sounds, and can recognize many words by sight. They don’t realize how much they’re learning because they’re too busy having fun.
That’s the goal of Palliser Regional Schools’ early learning and kindergarten programs, says Palliser Co-ordinating Principal of Early Learning Nathan Sillito — to build vital emotional, social, physical and communication skills through children’s natural instinct to have fun.
At Sunnyside kindergarten, for example, a group is playing a bean bag game in the hallway. Players grab a bean bag featuring an umbrella picture and then try to throw the bag down an alphabet-covered mat to “U.” The children are tossing beanbags, cheering, and running back to grab another.
“There’s so much going on. The activity in the hallway involves turn taking, following directions, beginning sounds and letter recognition,” says Principal Connie Adserballe. “The activities are planned and strategic.”
This is play-based learning at its best, says Amy Hass, who has four children in the rural school located just a five-minute drive from north Lethbridge.
Hass says she’s witnessed “exponential growth” in her son’s speech and communication skills thanks to Sunnyside’s twice-a-week morning program for three- and four-year-olds.
“Sunnyside has a plan,” she says. “That plan is intentional and that plan takes the guesswork out of where kids are, where they need to be and exactly what they need to get there.”
As a teacher herself, Hass can appreciate the a three-pronged approach to student success that she describes as: access to specialists when needed; highly trained teachers up on the latest research; and parents who are encouraged and equipped to support learning at home.
A literacy expert who was instrumental in development of Palliser’s division-wide literacy program, Adserballe has held parent workshops on easy, at-home activities to support reading and writing.
Looking around the kindergarten classroom, Adserballe is confident about the Grade 1-readiness of the group and she’s looking ahead to next year when the school will adopt a Handwriting Without Tears program. Designed by an occupational therapist, the program builds fine motor skills, provides alternative pencil grips for students who need it, and offers other strategies to encourage printing.
“We can focus on ideas, not the mechanics of writing,” Adserballe says.
These kindergarten students regularly participate in writing workshops. On this day, after being introduced to a new book about yawns, one student wrote her name, the word “yawn” and a picture of herself.
Another student opens his writing folder to two pages of a work in progress about a family trip to Waterton. On the back of one page, the word “store” stands out as the lone printed word on the page. The young writer explains his friend spelled it for him in case he needed to use the word again sometime.
Slusar smiles, watching it unfold. She says in her five years teaching kindergarten, her goal has never changed: “That they go home loving to learn.”
Palliser Regional Schools has play-based, literacy-focused early learning and kindergarten programs in all of its elementary schools, with some operated by private partners. For information, contact the Palliser elementary school near you or visit http://www.pallisersd.ab.ca/early-learning for more information.