by Katie, 3-5’s parent

Every day in our 3 to 5’s class our children enter a space brimming with possibilities for play. They can build, create, pretend, paint or read and, last year, my son Henry loved doing all these things….except maybe paint. Ok, actually almost never paint. Or draw or glue or do anything involving the word “craft.”

Throughout the school year, three days a week, he had laid before him an opportunity to do some sort of art project and it would be safe to say that in the entire year he maybe created art 10 times even when directly encouraged, cajoled, and on occasion bribed. One of the few times he willingly created something was when he had the opportunity to make me a present for mother’s day and he very carefully and sweetly made me a heart-shaped broach.

School was not the only place he eschewed making art – at home countless pencils, crayons and markers lay unused. He never wanted to color or draw. He would write his name only when heavily bribed. He had absolutely no interest.

My knee-jerk reaction was to worry. I believe very strongly in play based learning, but I started to think to myself, “if he won’t ever draw or paint or color, will he be ready for kindergarten in a year? Will he be able to keep up with kids who have been forced to write daily in their preschool class?” My friend’s kids were sitting at desks, learning how to write their names while my kid was playing firemen and learning about the life cycle of worm. How would he develop the fine motor skills he needed for writing? Would that affect his kindergarten preparedness??

It’s not uncommon that many co-ops have no problems filling their toddler classes and pre-3’s, but there’s often an enrollment drop-off at the 3 to 5’s. Possibly parents are drawn away by lesser commitment that comes with a drop-off school and the longer hours. I can’t help but wonder, however, if some drop-off happens at this age because other parents have similar nagging questions as I had–will play based curriculum really get them ready for kindergarten? Do they need a program with greater “academic rigor”.

In spite of my worries, I trusted Teacher Allison and Elizabeth Bird and the many expert articles I read that a play-based curriculum was the best place for his growing mind and that the social-emotional skills my son was developing would be more valuable to his kindergarten readiness than forcing him to write his name a hundred times. I took a deep breath, left the art supplies available around the house but stopped pushing them. I decided to just let him play where he wanted to play.

At the advice of a couple of play based learning experts, I started to pay attention to where he was playing and offering him the opportunity enhance that play by creating using pen and paper. For example, if he was playing explorer, I might suggest that we draw a map. If he showed interest, together we would create a map and he would draw places on the map or the lines connecting them. If I found him engaged in playing super-heroes I might suggest that we might design a monster to “fight”. If he wanted to play Octonauts, I would pull out a cardboard box and paint and let him create a boat. Slowly and of his own volition, over the summer he began to ask to use markers to draw on a paper airplane or make a card.

The more I backed off and let him lead the way, the more his willingness to “make art” has grown. Now in his second year of 3 to 5’s he might make art once a week – you’ll more likely find him charging down the hallway playing firefighter. He’s growing and developing beautifully and him happily learning as he plays and, me….I’m slowly learning to back off and let him do the work of being a 4 year old: play.