By Austin Nikolich, Director of Curriculum, Sacred Heart Preschool, Louisville, KY
Sacred Heart Preschool embarked on a large-scale overhaul of its beliefs, practices, and standards several years ago. Over the past few years we have shifted our practices away from direct instruction and into a wholly child-centered, inquiry, play and nature-based mindset. We pulled what used to be called “soft skills” out of the drawer and put them on the metaphorical “pedestal” of our early childhood philosophy. We recognized that the ever-more pervasive mentality of childhood as something to be controlled and boxed-in was resulting in under resourceful, overly impulsive and under prepared adolescents. We saw this hallmark for change and leaned into the challenge of reimagining what “schooling” meant, and what our new vision of schooling could look like.
Working with the Children at Play Network, we began a deep dive into the outdoor environments in which our students played. We explored the concept of “risk” and lent it time and space in our dialogue and teaching encounters with nature. What was once a prescriptive outdoor play space became a messy natural landscape in which children were freely activating their senses and engaging the elements of nature that were not previously regarded as “learning opportunities”. Faculty and staff began to see the value, and necessity, in designing play spaces that supported free play… that it is freely chosen, intrinsically motivated, and self-directed. We began to see concepts connecting across disciplines, inquiries unfolding organically without adult direction and children who were far more capable and confident than they were before.
Our outdoor patio began to take shape as a Loose Parts Lab, holding boxes, tape, tubes, acorns, leaves, and anything the children felt inclined to create with. We began to bring more loose parts, stumps, sticks and logs out onto our playground and watched as the children became ever more creative, resilient, better communicators and more capable and confident in assessing and navigating risk. Where we once had to engage in tiring exercises of skills assessments and checklists, we now have the luxury of honing our observation skills as our students demonstrate skills development and conceptual understanding through free play and natural inquiry. An evolution took place, not only for our students but for the adults as well. An evolution of understanding that play is the highest form of research and that children are capable, confident, and creative beings that deserve the time and space to reach their potential through free play.