Early Risers

Preschool isn't what it used to be. Early childhood education in some schools now includes foreign languages, environmentalism and a social curriculum.

Brooke Marcy and Jessica Eaton's preschool class begins with a song.

"Hickory Bickory Bumble Bee, won't you say your name for me?" they all sing together as the kids sit in a circle and focus on a blue bee, named Hickory, in Marcy's hands.

It's the second day of school, and Marcy wants the kids to learn one another's names. Every kid and teacher gets to say his or her name in front of the class while holding the stuffed animal and hear everyone else greet them, clap out the syllables and whisper it back.

Learning everyone's name is important, but there is more behind the exercise: It makes the kids feel valued and recognized by their peers.

"They smile and show they are very proud," Marcy says. "Hearing their name in the community is hugely valuable. It gets them to practice saying their name in front of a group and hearing others say it too instills confidence."

Part of a new focus in Hawken's early childhood program, this type of classroom values the social curriculum as much as the academic curriculum. The idea is that kids should not be held to strict benchmarks each year, rather given guidelines and time to develop through a curriculum designed around their interests.

"It's not whether or not a child is doing well in school, it's about progress and development," says Mary Beth Hilborn, director of Hawken's early childhood program. "At this stage, it's not about being a good student. It's knowing each child developmentally."

One classroom may study bridges because the kids like playing with the building blocks while another learns about towers because a child lives in a big apartment complex.

"It's very different from when I grew up, where we had desks lined in a row," says Dan Grajzl, a parent with three kids in Hawken's early education program. "They're taking advantage of the knowledge base that they have and trying to bring the best style of teaching to the kids. They pay a lot of attention to the children."

Indeed, early childhood education doesn't resemble what many parents remember from their own experiences.

Hawken invested four years into developing the new curriculum and $4.1 million into a new early childhood center, which opened its first phase last month. Entering the new building, it's impossible to miss The Nido (Italian for nest), a central playing space with lifelike grass, a bubble wall and sunroof with a sundial so the shadows from the natural light can keep time.

"The community that's brought about from the parents and the school is one of the main reasons we stayed with Hawken," Grajzl says. "I see how involved the parents are; they want to know the teachers, students and other parents."

Establishing such an environment early in a child's development is important, according to the experts. "The beginning is everything," Hilborn says. "The time and investment in a child's early years is going to be far more beneficial than waiting to give it to them at the end."

Laurel's pre-primary school, for example, is entering the fourth year of Eco! Wonder, which teaches kids what they can do to help maintain their environment. Kids learn about sustainability, saving rainwater and composting. Students also get to garden year-round through Laurel's greenhouse and make snacks out of the herbs and vegetables they grow.

"It's amazing how important the children feel when they're doing this," says Jane Thornton, the director of Laurel's pre-primary school. "They bring it home to their families, and it builds a bridge between home and school."

The program also takes advantage of Laurel's 140 wooded acres on the Butler campus in Russell and Chester townships, allowing children to explore and discover nature on their own.

"When they leave the classrooms, they remind the teacher that they need to turn the lights off," Thornton says. "They've shown an increased interest in all of the natural elements."

Similarly, Old Trail School, nestled in the middle of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, recently expanded its early childhood wing, adding four new classrooms and increasing enrollment to 106 students. Nature walks, beaver ponds, vegetable gardens and even an organic farm are just a few outdoor activities kids have to choose from.

At Ruffing Montessori in Rocky River, each class has a plot in a Learning Garden to plant whatever they'd like. One class was interested in making pizza, so it created a pizza garden filled with tomatoes and basil. Kids use rainwater to water the garden and compost whenever possible.

"If you expect kids to treat things right, they will," says Lori Coticchia, an administrator at Ruffing Montessori. "We're trying to instill in them a sense of obligation toward the environment and community."

They're also finding ways to expand their worlds by introducing foreign languages in early childhood. Laurel, Hawken and Old Trail offer Spanish before kindergarten while Ruffing begins in first grade.

In fact, Laurel began a full-fledged World Languages program this year, which exposes kids to French, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese on a trimester rotation.

"Our goal is to introduce kids to other languages and cultures with the idea that the more they are exposed to languages and cultures, the more open they will be to the formal study later on down the road," says Janice Vitullo, chair of Laurel's World Languages program.

It's these opportunities that parents appreciate.

"I love the idea that they start with our kids so young, and they can grow with the school," says Julie Mangini, a parent with three kids at Hawken. "There are kids from all over the community and different cultures. The school is about embracing all of that, and it instills a confidence in them."

Classrooms in Hawken's new Early Childhood Center surround a community space that incorporates elements of nature such as turf, a pebble "stream," and natural lighting.

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