In May, 3-year-old Eva Oriolo saw her mother leaving for the grocery store and
ran to her pleading, “Mommy, please I go with you? I wear my mask? I stay in the
Rana Oriolo, a mother of three, knows only too well what her preschooler was going
through. As director of The Learning Center for Young Children (LCYC) in Kensington, Maryland, she has seen firsthand the effects of the pandemic on her students, including the longing to reconnect with friends, family and the outside world.
After instituting new protocols to protect both staff and students, LCYC reopened in September, a move that Oriolo supports. “Mental health outweighs physical health now,” she says. “We all have to live with the virus.”
Oriolo says her students are happy to be back, noting their resilience. She explains that they are adapting quickly to new protocols, including wearing masks indoors and being socially distant outdoors. At snack time, for example, they remove their masks and put them inside their disposable snack bags until they are finished eating, putting them back on to continue learning through play.
The Benefits of Play
While some say preschool is the new kindergarten, most preschool programs have developed strong curricula to ensure kindergarten readiness, not to replace it. The Archdiocese of Washington, which operates 92 schools – preschool through high school – is the largest nonpublic school system in the area, with about 27,000 students spread out over the District of Columbia and five counties in Maryland. The main objective of the ADW preschool curriculum is to introduce the child to the joy of learning in a “learn through play” approach, covering pre-reading, math, science, art and music and movement experience with meaningful tasks and activities that encourage motor skill development, interpersonal relationships and self-help skills.
At the core of an outstanding preschool program is the idea of learning through play, explains Richard Peterson, chief academic officer of Kiddie Academy, which was founded in 1981 in Baltimore County and now has over 30 locations in the Baltimore and D.C. metropolitan area. “This ‘play’ is intentional and is facilitated by skilled teachers,” he says.
To the untrained eye, something as simple as sorting small objects and transferring them to containers using little tongs just looks like fun. However, this pincer grasp exercise is designed to develop the motor skills and muscles needed for pre-writing skills such as holding a pencil.
“Children learn with their whole bodies, explore their surroundings freely, talk with peers and teachers about what they are learning, organize their thoughts through trial and error and discover how to relate to others,” says Peterson.
Peterson also notes that each child has their own optimal method of learning. “Learning through play meets the needs of all types of learners—visual, auditory, and kinesthetic,” he says. “It allows children to develop socially, cognitively, emotionally and physically.”
Getting Kindergarten Ready at Home
Parents who have decided to keep their preschoolers home this year can work on the academic skills necessary for kindergarten, such as name recognition and name writing, recognition of letters and numbers and counting from one to 30, says Oriolo. However, they should also be teaching basic life lessons, such as playing cooperatively, walking in a line and problem solving.
For example, parents can engage their preschoolers while preparing an afternoon snack by having their child follow directions such as “first count the apple slices and grapes, and then put three of each in the bowl,” says former preschool teacher Sue Hayden of Rockville, Maryland, who is not teaching for the first time in 19 years due to concerns over the pandemic. This simple task accomplishes two things on the kindergarten-readiness checklist: sorting and classifying while following twostep directions. “Problem-solving through trial and error is an important part of learning at this age,” says Hayden.
“While much concern is expressed about children learning to read and write, it is equally, if not more important, for young children to develop friendships as this is a lifelong skill that is based on learning empathy, give and take and suppressing one’s own needs for the good of another,” says Dr. Pat Scully, a member of the Kiddie Academy curriculum advisory board.
Whether it is in an accredited program outside the home or at home with a parent, grandparent or care provider, preschool children will benefit, primarily through play and hands-on experiences, from learning how to communicate with others while developing the pre-learning skills necessary for kindergarten and beyond. Most experts agree that engaging with your child while using positive vocabulary and positive reinforcement to teach about the world around them is as important as academics at the preschool age.
“Expressing feelings in words, taking turns, waiting and following group rules are just some of the many social and emotional skills that children need to learn [in preschool],” says Scully.
Kayon Depina “Kreates”
Kayon DePina goes nonstop from before dawn to after dark, with the energy of a wound-up preschooler. She wakes at 4:40 a.m. to work out, gets her children ready for their school day and makes time to text parents of her “scholars,” as she calls her students, with the day’s schedule, links and notes.
Being a preschool teacher in a virtual environment is not ideal, explains DePina. “It is four times harder than in person,” she says. Her attitude remains upbeat and positive; however, as she shares on her social media, “We need to extend grace to each other.”
With two undergraduate degrees and a master’s degree in early childhood education, DePina has taught in Baltimore City Public Schools for over four years and serves as an educational coach for the preschool program at Curtis Bay Elementary School. Her educational philosophy during this pandemic remains the same as pre-COVID: “Everything we do as educators right now has to be intentional,” she says.
Once she found out that her school would be returning virtually this fall, DePina updated her Amazon Wish List and worked with guidance from the Judy Centers and funds from the Sherman Center at UMBC to create a backpack for her students. She filled them with the essentials for virtual learning: an alarm clock, a mini-dry erase board and markers, magnetic foam letters, a reading buddy stuffed animal, leveled reading books and other manipulatives for use during their online classes. Her goal was that she would get to each student “the best that is available to them during this time,” she says.
DePina’s best includes nonstop professional development using YouTube, Go Noodle and other educational apps to engage her young scholars. She and her sister have written a book called “Metaphorical Moon,” currently in the final stages of self-publication, and she has launched an internet business, Kayon Kreates Learning Spaces. All of this activity is supported by her desire to bring to her students the social and emotional support they need through these challenging times. “We must be able to reach them and connect with them, and academics will come later,” she says.
Michelle Blanchard Ardillo is a freelance writer and educational tutor, having taught middle school language arts for 13 years. Read more of her work at michelleardillo.com or follow her @michardillo on Twitter.