January 29, 2016

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Learning through play builds strong foundation for pre-K children

Mimi Barry smiles as a pre-school student at Holy Cross Central School in Indianapolis shows her a ball of playdough she made on Jan. 6. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Mimi Barry smiles as a pre-school student at Holy Cross Central School in Indianapolis shows her a ball of playdough she made on Jan. 6. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Sunshine filtered through the row of windows as the group of 3- and 4-year-olds chose their desired group activity at Holy Cross Central School in Indianapolis.

At one table, eight children pounded and rolled playdough.

“Look! It’s a octopus!” shouted one girl, holding up a playdough ball with dangling playdough legs.

At another table, eight children used Q-tips, glue, construction paper and paint to make snowflake designs—if they wanted.

“I’m making a monster!” one little boy shouted, opting against a snowflake pattern. His teacher affirmed that “yes,” it was a scary monster.

The average person looking in on the scene might see children just being children. But Mimi Barry sees children learning social skills, dexterity, shapes and other skills while doing what they naturally do at this age—play.

“I feel it’s important at this age, especially between the ages of 3-5, to begin with their learning just through play,” she said. “They’re not being rushed and pushed to learn their letters on worksheets, because eventually they get worn out, in my opinion. You want them to start off enjoying school and having it be a positive experience.”

Barry is a coach from St. Mary’s Child Center in Indianapolis, a nonprofit, archdiocesan-affiliated pre-school which serves children of economically disadvantaged families. The center utilizes a form of early childhood education called Reggio Emilia, named for the Italian town where it originated.

Barry spent time recently coaching at Holy Cross Central School, one of five Mother Theodore Catholic Academies (MTCA) kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools in Indianapolis. The student population of MTCA schools mirrors that of St. Mary’s.

Recently, Indiana launched an early education effort called On My Way Pre-K, available in five counties, three of which—Jackson, Marion and Vanderburgh—are in the archdiocese. The program offers funding for low-income families to enroll their children in high-quality pre-K programs.

To better serve children living in poverty and to support the teaching mission of the Church, MTCA schools developed pre-school programs approved by the state to receive On My Way Pre-K funded students.

To improve the pre-school classes even more, the archdiocese contracted St. Mary’s to coach MTCA’s pre-K teachers. The similarity in St. Mary’s and the MTCA schools’ student population, plus St. Mary’s success in serving children in poverty by using the Reggio Emilia method, made the organization a natural choice for coaching.

Connie Sherman, executive director of St. Mary’s, said Reggio Emilia “is not a book with a curriculum.

“We think all children are strong, competent and capable. That influences what you expect from children, and also what you give them in their classroom in terms of activities. It’s very child-driven, experiential and hands-on.”

Sherman’s description of the Reggio Emilia approach mirrored Barry’s comments about learning through play.

“You would never see a child [at St. Mary’s] sit down with a workbook page,” Sherman said. “They work with real objects and natural material, and have conversations about what they are doing. We do a lot of project work, so children might have literacy and math and science that fall under project work.”

But is such “play learning” effective? The numbers indicate yes.

“For many [children living in poverty], this is their chance to have a good future,” said Sherman. “Most [impoverished children] go into school one-and-a-half to two years behind. They lack the experience others are exposed to because their families are so challenged.”

But she went on to say that of last year’s class at St. Mary’s—93 percent of whom came from families living below the poverty level—89 percent entered kindergarten at the appropriate developmental age and skill level.

“If a child is involved in a program like [ours], it’s much more likely they won’t be incarcerated, will graduate from high school, and don’t go into special education,” Sherman said. “We believe that [such positive results] will happen at the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies.”

St. Mary’s success is supported by more than statistics. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has accredited the center, and the State of Indiana licensed it at the highest level on Indiana’s Paths to Quality rating scale.

While the Reggio Emilia approach has proven successful for the center, and while children at St. Mary Child’s Center and the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies schools are similar, the St. Mary’s coaches “are not there to force Reggio Emilia” on MTCA pre-K teachers.

“We are in there to support best practices in the classroom,” said Diane Pike, St. Mary’s director of curriculum and outreach.

“Coaches work side by side [with the teachers] and model ways to interact positively with children. They will support Mother Theodore Catholic Academies in best practices, doing what is best for the children. We’re not going in and making them do Reggio, but all [of our coaching] is through that lens, and when you do [what is seen through] that lens, it is best practices.”

Ruth Hittel, principal at Holy Cross Central School, welcomed the opportunity to receive pre-K best practices coaching.

“The majority of [our staff] are trained [in grades] K-8,” she said. “As we look to expand in the pre-school area, that’s not where our experience lies. But it is where the experience lies with St. Mary’s Child Center. The best choice of someone to coach our pre-school teachers would be the best early childhood program, which is St. Mary’s Child Center.”

One of the MTCA schools, St. Anthony School, recently received a grant to add an additional pre-school room, expanding their capacity from 20 students age 4, to 40 students ages 3 and 4. St. Mary’s Child Center has been hired to operate the pre-K program there next year.

‘This school-in-school approach will allow the experts of St. Mary’s Child Center’s early childhood education to work with the experts of elementary education at St. Anthony’s,” said Gina Fleming, superintendent of the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Schools.

“This makes for a natural transition from pre-K to elementary education, and builds a firm foundation for the young people. The best is that we’re capitalizing on the experience of those in the field, and meeting our core focus of serving every need of children in the context of Catholic education.” †

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