Paint, compute, bang - learning those spatial skills

Every day, the kids here at the Sheridan College Child Care Centre get to consider the Bill Gates question: "Where do you want to go today?"

The center looks like a typical well-equipped preschool. One boy sits at a computer. A girl is painting with what appears to be blackberry jam. Four other boys are in the blocks corner, banging away at each other with cardboard two-by-fours and oh, yes, developing their spatial skills.

But what's special here is that it's the children themselves who determine when to play with what.

"Plan-Do-Review" is the motto at Sheridan, one of the Canadian centers using a preschool curriculum approach developed by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich.

The High/Scope approach contrasts with both free-form play and the more academic-oriented "themed" approach, as in, for instance, "Boys and girls, this week we're going to learn about community helpers."

Under the High/Scope program, the children are asked, "What do you want to do?" and then do it, and then afterward review what they actually did.

On this particular crisp, wintry morning, with dazzling sun but too low a temperature for outdoor playtime, "work time" comes to a close, and the children gather in a circle with one of their teachers. Pretending to talk to them over a bright-colored toy telephone, she asks them to report on their activities.

"It's an opportunity to learn actively," says Pat Tretjack, one of the teachers. "Plan-do-review" is a "cognitive process that the children will use over and over. "The reviews are as good as you make them. You have to get the kids' attention," she adds.

Hence the toy telephone as a "prop" in their discussion.

"The plan may last 30 seconds; it may last half a day," says David Weikart, president of the High/Scope Foundation. "What's important is the attention, the engagement of the child."

It's an approach, his research has found, that has long-term benefits for children exposed to it.

In 1962, the foundation began the High/Scope Perry Preschool study of 123 economically disadvantaged black children in Ypsilanti and has tracked them periodically ever since.

At age 27, graduates of the High/Scope approach were compared with a control group, and only 7 percent have been arrested 5 times or more (versus 35 percent for the control group). Fewer High/Scope grads spent time on welfare (59 percent versus 80 percent). They were more likely to have graduated on time (66 percent versus 45 percent), to earn more than $2,000 per month (29 percent versus 7 percent) and to own their own home (38 percent versus 13 percent).

Andrew Biemiller, professor at the Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto, has a different take on the High/Scope approach. He sees parental involvement as the critical ingredient in day-care programs found to make a difference in social outcomes, including High/Scope's. What appears crucial is that "parents continued to have hope for the kids," despite modest economic circumstances, he says.

Whatever the specific curriculum, a number of experts see high-quality day care as making a big difference in young lives.

"High-quality day care may be the icing on the cake for middle-class children," says Moya Fewson, coordinator for early-childhood education at Sheridan, "but for the disadvantaged, it's the cake."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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