One of the questions I get most frequently from parents of my students is, "Is s/he playing with the other children?" I realize that a major reason that many parents send their children to preschool is to prepare them for kindergarten. A large part of that preparedness is what we often refer to as "socialization." As I have mulled over this question and how I tend to respond to it, I was inspired to write this post about the many aspects of socialization. Oftentimes we (parents and teachers too) have a limited view of what is meant by socialization. We tend to just think of it as playing with peers when it is really a very multi-faceted concept. This is especially true with very young children. Most often their preschool experience is the first time they have been in an environment composed primarily of similar-aged peers. Even if they have experience in a daycare setting, the classroom may be the first time they've had to share the attention of the adults with 19 other children. There are many social lessons that children learn in the classroom that are just as important as playing interactively with other children. And, in fact, many of these social lessons must be learned before successful interactions with their peers can take place. Let me explain........
First of all, in the preschool classroom children learn how to follow directions given by adults who are not their parents. They learn this by observing their peers following directions as well as by verbal and visual prompts from the teachers. This learning occurs during group time when "group behaviors" are learned and practiced. The ability to sit and pay attention in a group is probably THE number one skill that any kindergarten teacher would like to see in their incoming class of students. It's more important to kindergarten teachers than pretty much any academic skill. (I know this because I used to co-teach a kindergarten classroom and have many friends who teach kindergarten. Trust me!) This skill will be necessary in all facets of life for the rest of their life.
In our classroom we focus on the following four group time behaviors:
1.) Legs criss-cross (this is so everyone can see and hear the teacher, and also so everyone has enough space to sit on the line)
2.) Hands in your lap (so we are not bothering or distracting the friends sitting next to us)
3.) Voices off (so we can hear what the teacher or a friend is telling the group)
4.) Listening ears on (so we can learn together)
I have always had these same expectations for group time behavior. I have a little song that we sing to remind ourselves of what is expected at group time. We sing it to the tune "Frere Jacque" and it goes like this:
"Legs criss-cross, Legs criss-cross, Hands in your lap, Hands in your lap. Turn your voices off and your listening ears on so ......... (here I insert the purpose for our voices off and listening ears such as ".....so we can do our calendar" OR "........so we can listen to show and tell", etc.)
This year for the first time I have added picture cards which correspond to our group behavior expectations. These have provided a great visual reminder for the children. I hold up the pictures as we sing the song (they are on a ring so I can flip through them easily) AND I can say a child's name and hold up the picture of what they need to "fix" without drawing a lot of attention to them. You may download my pictures here if you wish.
Another important social lesson learned during our group time is taking turns. Children learn to take turns during our class discussions. They learn to raise their hand to speak. They learn to listen when others are speaking. They learn that sometimes they must wait for a turn during our group songs and games. Essentially, they learn that there are other people in the world who have needs and rights and who sometimes get to do something before they do. Another important life lesson. Sometimes this lesson comes with a few tears until they realize that Miss Laura ALWAYS gives everyone a turn in our group activities and if they are patient, they will have their turn. Already by the second week of school they have all learned this important lesson and I am SO proud of them!
Children in a Montessori classroom also learn turn-taking during our work time. If another child is playing with something that they want to play with, USUALLY they must wait until that child is finished before they can play. We really try to instill respect for others. Children are discouraged from interrupting other children who are working. They are taught to ask for permission to join in the play of another child. They are allowed to watch lessons given to another child (much learning occurs incidentally this way) with that child's permission. But respect of another child's right to interact with materials by themselves is an absolute in our classroom. And honestly, this is just such an inherent part of our classroom that there are rarely conflicts over materials even though there is only one set of any given activity on the shelves at any given time.
Grace and courtesy is another important part of the Montessori curriculum and, again, it provides children the opportunity to practice and master the extremely important life skill of using good manners. We encourage the use of "Please" when asking for help and "Thank you" when help is given. We also require children to say either "Yes, please" or "No, thank you" when they are served snack each day. Additionally, each child says "Good morning, Miss Laura" (or "Good afternoon, Miss Laura") during our roll call each day. Just another way they are learning courtesy on a daily basis.
Although I've already alluded to it, another important social lesson learned in preschool is respecting another person's body and their personal space. This is reinforced by encouraging them to keep their hands off each other (many, many reminders about this at this age) and by discouraging them from touching the materials another child is using. At the risk of stating the obvious, children who are not able to respect others' bodies and personal space will have a lot of trouble down the road making and maintaining friendships. That's why this one is such a biggie.
Of course another aspect of a child's social experiences at school DOES involve playing with other children. Some examples of how this happens in our classroom are: two children working on separate projects but sharing supplies such as crayons, glue or scissors; two children working together to build something with our blocks; two or more children playing any number of simple games which are available; two children jointly putting together a puzzle; two or more children sitting together in the library looking at a book; an older child helping a younger child cut apart their pictures for a cut and paste project; an older child helping a younger child roll up and put away their rug and MUCH MUCH more.
One thing to keep in mind when it comes to "playing with others" is developmental stages. Our youngest children (who are usually barely three when they start preschool) are typically not at a point developmentally where they are able to easily play interactively with other children. Typical three-year-olds are very interested in interacting with all the fun and exciting materials and somewhat less interested in interacting with other children. And that's OKAY!! That's just where they're at developmentally. Remember that they ARE participating in many social experiences with peers. (Not to mention learning all the other important social lessons I've described.) They may engage in parallel play with other children such as sitting together and building with blocks, each child building their own structure. During their second year in the classroom, their readiness for interacting with peers on joint activities has grown. It is during the second year (or with our four and five year olds) that we see much more of a desire to do activities with a friend. So.......it's not unusual at all to look around the classroom and see all the three years olds pretty much doing their own thing and all the four and five year olds paired up with someone else. That's just how they roll........and it's all good!
Whew! I'm going to stop for now. This is getting long, but I really wanted to solidify my thoughts on it. I'll be sending my parents an email with a link to this post. If anyone who's reading this would like to do the same for your own set of parents, please feel free. Just link to me or give me credit for the post. THANKS!
I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'm sure there are aspects of socialization that I've neglected to highlight here. It's so wonderful to be able to connect with each other all over the world through this little piece of cyberspace!