Walking into our River Street Head Start Center, I was greeted by smiling faces of our staff and children excited to start their school day. At L.E.A.P’s Head Start Center teachers refer to each other and their students as friends. I was introduced to my new friends as they came in and began their morning responsibilities. That was when I began to realize, a Head Start classroom isn’t like other classrooms. All my friends were encouraged to be active participants in the flow of classroom activities. Children entering the room hugged and kissed their parents goodbye as they hung coats and backpacks in the cubbies. Each child dutifully walked to the sign-in board, where they moved their name to the column signifying they were in fact present that day. Before joining their friends at different centers in the classroom for some free play before breakfast, children lined up at the sink to wash their hands.
I sat down in the blocks center, one of the most popular play areas, watching children building roads to nowhere and practicing their sharing.
As if a timer had gone off in their minds, three students walked over to the three small tables in the classroom and began setting out placemats, cups, utensils, and plates. A healthy meal of oranges, cereal, and milk was spread out and we waited until all our friends had put away their games and toys, and found their seats. Each teacher had a seat at the table; one of my new friends even set an extra place for me! Manners were reinforced as the children served themselves and learned about portion sizes. Conversations about what our friends had done the night before were quickly changed to the more interesting topic of, “If you could be any monster, what kind would you be?” As children began to finish their meals, they cleared their plates. Once all the tables were cleaned off, it was time to brush our teeth.
We gathered on the rug, expectantly watching Miss Becky, the classroom’s lead teacher, waiting for the Daily News to begin. Each friend had a spot to sit in that was marked with their photo. Miss Becky explained to me that the photos are moved periodically so that friends are always sitting next to someone new. The Daily News isa review of the their daily routine, as well as, where they were responsible for helping that day. Everyone plays a role in the classroom, with children involved in every aspect from free play, to learning activities, and the daily classroom routine, ensuring that everyone stays engaged.
The teacher’s at Head Start create interactive experiences for the students. For example, with snow expected over the weekend our friends were asked participate in a poll to determine how many students thought we would get no snow, a little snow, or a lot of snow. Of course, most of the children hoped for a lot of snow and placed their tally mark on the chart accordingly. We practiced shapes and colors; as students said the proper answers in unison, their excitement grew. Finally, we were ready for what many of my friends said was the best part of the day, Centers. Centers is when students are able to choose an area of the classroom to go for some free play. There’s the block center where you could build towers and roads, play with dinosaurs, and pretend that the floor is lava. The discovery center has play dough and fishing for alphabet letters, among other activities. There are puzzles, stamps, colored paper and crayons, paint, and a quiet center with books to read. In order to choose a center, friends who sat patiently and quietly were called up to Miss Becky and her student helper. The Teacher’s Helper pulled a letter out of a basket and once correctly identified, each child was given a name tag which they would hang at the center of their choice.
My new friends accepted me right away, inviting me to complete puzzles, bake play dough cookies, go fishing, and watch as they stamped out beautiful pieces of art. When the weather is more cooperative, the classes go outside for some exercise. During my visit we settled for games like hot potato and dancing. After centers, we returned to the rug and where Miss Becky read to us while we waited for lunch
Watching 3 and 4 year olds come in and complete their routine as if they had been doing so every day of their short lives, I saw that Head Start wasn’t just a place to learn colors, shapes and numbers; it was a place that would teach children how to interact with each other and adults both in and out of school, a place where children were accountable for their actions and their daily tasks. There is a change in students, even from just September to November. Some who are new and not used to rules, sharing, having manners enforced are now going with the flow of the classroom routines. Head Start is more than a school readiness program, it is a life readiness program.