As a Jewish early childhood educator with many years of experience, there is one thing that I love to do when visiting another area or school, and that is to visit the early childhood classroom when no teachers or children are present. Just looking at the room setup gives me many clues of what goes on when the children and staff are there.
I survey the room to see how the interest areas (blocks, dramatic play, table toys, art, music, library) are set up. In each area, is there enough room for children to play, bearing in mind that play is children’s work, and play is the way children learn? I look to see if each activity area (blocks, trucks, etc.) are set away from quiet areas such as library and table toys. Is each area clearly defined, separate from the other areas? Does each area have sufficient room in which to play? Can children move easily from one area to the next easily without interfering with play?
How do we define play? Play is self-directed activity, self-directed by the child. The teacher provides the material(s) and sets up the room to provide the best environment for play. What does a child do when she plays? She touches, shakes, moves, etc., and in so doing begins to learn about the environment around her and learns about communicating with others.
To better comprehend this concept of play and to understand what happens in an early childhood classroom, imagine for a moment that you are looking into the window of a Jewish early childhood classroom. Many things are going on; there is a sense of busyness and purpose there, with the children and with the adults interacting with the children.
Take a look around the room. You may see some children in a kitchen/dining area in miniature (dramatic play area); a child may be “stirring” the pot on the miniature stove, another child may be putting some plates on the table or cuddling a “baby.” It is here that children have the opportunity to be Avraham Avinu, after listening to the teacher talk about this special person; perhaps a girl can be Sarah or Rivkah, after hearing about these two imahot.
Very young children play what they see; it is a way for them to understand the different roles in a family structure; of the daddy/abba, the mommy/ima, siblings, etc. Often, as they play, they speak the role that each one has, thus further defining and understanding family structure.
In another area, you may see some children building a structure with wooden and/or cardboard blocks; they are very focused on their activity, trying to prevent the structure from falling. Other children in this area may be driving cars and trucks on a track. Some other children will be playing with a train set, guiding the engine carefully. As the play continues, children will converse with each other as they talk about where to put a block or train car.
Blocks are very important for young children. As children create a structure, they are learning about size and shapes; what can fit on top of a block, what cannot fit on top of a block; they communicate with each other, sharing ideas about how and what to build. Blocks are so important for young children that there is an entire book about them, The Block Book, by Elizabeth Hirsch.
Looking further, you may see a child wearing a smock at an easel, using different colors of paint as he expresses himself on unprinted newsprint on a child-size easel. Perhaps you may notice that there just three or four colors of paint from which a child can choose a color to paint.
Painting at an easel is another way for a young child to express what she sees. The child may cover the entire paper, or not. Asking a child to tell you about her picture may help her to verbalize what she is painting. A comment by the adult can be made about a certain aspect of the painting, such as a blue line. This is a way to help the child verbalize thoughts about the painting.
There may be a group of children sitting at a table in another area of the room. Some children are coloring on paper, others may be working on a puzzle, other children may be working with Lego.
Table toys, also called manipulatives, allow young children to use their small muscles. Fitting a piece of a puzzle into the frame requires small motor skills, as well as giving the child the opportunity to review a concept, such as a holiday that is being discussed at that time. Also very important is the children talking to each other as they work, thus sharing ideas, concepts, and experiences.
You may notice, as you continue to look around the room, that there is a bookshelf with books for children displayed. Some books may relate to a particular concept, such as a holiday, that is a theme in the classroom, and so will appear at certain times. Other books relating to Shabbat will be available all the time, as Shabbat comes every week. Other books may deal with Jewish values. You may notice that this area is somewhat quieter than other areas and so is in a different part of the room. There may be a few small chairs, pillows, or carpet squares for children to sit on while reading. Some children may sit together; at other times, a teacher may be reading to a small group of children.
We Jews are the People of the Book, and we believe in exposing books and reading to young children at the earliest age possible, even babes in arms. Reading to young children introduces them to the written word, to the pattern of words in books; right to left for Hebrew, left to right for English. Young children learn that a book is a sefer, that we care for books, that a siddur is a special book for the Jewish people. (Here it must be noted that a siddur is an integral part of the everyday ritual of a Jewish preschool.)
As you continue to look around the room, you may see a few children standing around a sand table or a water table, using different items such as strainers or small cups to manipulate the sand or water.
Sand play and water play are both very sensory activities, activities which are important for young children. Water can be splashed, poured, and frozen; sand can be sifted, raked, shoveled. Children discover cause and effect when they observe which items float and which items do not, as well as discovering that the amount of sand or water remains the same no matter the size or shape of the container.
In another part of the room, you may notice musical instruments such as triangles, tambourine, bells, and rhythm sticks. At certain times of the day, these instruments are brought out and used by the children, sometimes as a song is sung, and other times during a creative movement time, such as celebrating the Torah.
Music and movement experiences help the young child to develop both sides of the brain. Different melodies and movements can stimulate young children. Lively music can help children be uplifted from sorrowful moods or want to move their bodies. Children also learn social skills playing musical games. Their gross/large muscle development is enhanced through musical and movement experiences.