Davidson preschool thrives with unique agenda
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Saturday, Nov. 09, 2013

Davidson preschool thrives with unique agenda

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/05/13/17/174amN.Em.138.jpeg|210
    - IMAGES BY MICHELE
    The 2012-2013 class picture was taken Nov. 14, 2012 outside the Schoolhouse's front door.
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    - JOLIE SHIFFLET
    Larry Ligo holds the latchbox he made 40 years ago.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/05/13/17/1qOvs8.Em.138.jpeg|237
    - JOLIE SHIFFLET
    Benjamin Shifflet, left, and Zachary Tanenbaum build a trench on the Schoolhouse playground during this summer’s construction camp.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/05/13/17/7n25M.Em.138.jpeg|237
    - JOLIE SHIFFLET
    Lead teacher Deb Estes writes “Schoolhouse News” as dictated by one of the children. The students are, from left, Javier Sanchez-Watts, Zachary Tanenbaum and Maggie Lyons.

In 1971, a group of parents from Davidson opened The Children’s Schoolhouse, a different kind of preschool with a child-directed, multi-age learning environment.

More than 40 years later, the school is thriving, and is still using most of the same practices and some of the original materials.

After searching for a preschool based on the principles of early childhood development, 15 sets of Davidson parents decided to open their own parent cooperative preschool. Every parent has a say on the school’s policies and operation, as well as an open invitation to participate in the classroom activities.

All responsibilities necessary for operating the school are also divided up among the parents. Each year, families sign up for a team of their choosing and make a one-year commitment. Tasks are assigned to the teams, as well as goals for the school year. Parents typically work an average of 10 hours per month.

Jodi Shifflett, a parent and this school year’s fundraising chair, said the co-op nature of the school allows parents to really get to know each other.

“We maintain and run the school, help in the classroom, do fundraising and organize field trips. It is such a magical place for the children and the parents,” she said.

Based on the power of play and learning by doing rather than listening, the Schoolhouse curriculum uses hands-on activities and open-ended situations to allow children to explore and discover the world around them.

Shifflett said a child-directing learning environment is about letting children use their natural curiosity.

“We believe in allowing (children) to follow their own impulses in exploring their world. Our teachers provide a rich variety of materials and experiences in the classroom. We leave it to each child to decide which of those things to explore each day,” said Shifflett.

An example of this approach would be putting out a selection of art materials and allowing the children to decide how to use them as opposed to directing them to make a specific craft or follow a particular design. In addition, the children are not separated by age, but instead all learn together in one open, multi-age classroom. About 25 to 30 children, ages 3 to 5, enroll each year.

During the course of a school year, students are exposed to a wide range of learning experiences, including social, emotional, fine and gross motor, creative and cognitive activities. Activities vary each year based on the interests of the students and the offerings from the parents.

“(Last year), the children spent a month playing very enthusiastically in the ‘pizzeria’ that was set up in the classroom’s Imagination Station. (Later), we took a class field trip to a local pizzeria where the children got a behind-the-scenes tour and made their own pizzas,” said Shifflett.

The school also emphasizes an appreciation for nature by teaching about composting, organic gardening and recycling. The children go outside in all types of weather and enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables as their snack.

Shifflett said another unique aspect of their school is their conscious choice to exclude electronic media from the classroom because the children are there to interact and learn through play.

Their dedication and commitment to timeless play was highlighted at their alumni potluck on Oct. 5.

One of the school’s founding fathers, Larry Ligo, attended the event and was taking a look around inside, when he mentioned a latchbox he had made for the classroom 40 years ago. Shifflett spotted something in the school’s math and science area and sure enough, it was Ligo’s box.

“Not only was it in the school – it was out in the classroom for today’s children to explore. Since the teachers rotate the materials that are available to the children on a regular basis, it was special that he got to see it out and ready for use and not up on a shelf,” she said.

“(The latchbox) is such a testament to what we do here and our belief in the power of simple play,” added lead teacher Deb Estes.

Shifflett said the love and support she has felt being a part of the school is tremendous.

“The extraordinary thing is that this school has been around over 40 years, run by a different set of parents every year and yet remains true to its original intent and philosophy.”

Jennifer Baxter is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jennifer? Email her at jbaxter29@gmail.com.

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