Learning Together at Chapel School

Dee Dee Thurber, Director, Chapel School

Back to basics . . . less is more . . . this is our approach at Chapel School preschool in Nashua, New Hampshire. Through reading, research, workshops, and implementation, we are discovering what really speaks to the students.

Our classrooms are simple; we have replaced plastic toys with more natural wooden toys. We also have fewer items overall in the classroom. The primary decoration on our walls is student artwork. Students are free to create art each day, on their own terms as we slowly move away from teacher-directed activities. If something else is put on the wall, a picture or poster, we explain to students why we did so—what it represents, what it is about.

Our outdoor time is a key component of our day. During this time, students develop social emotional skills as well as fine and gross motor skills. Again, activities are on the students’ own terms. As educators, we have taken a step back to allow for risk taking (going down the slide in all different ways) so that the children learn, discover, and explore the way they need to for optimal development. Also, our playground reflects a more natural setting, with a tree house, slides coming out of a hill, balancing logs, and a sand circle.

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Each day, we see students creating something new with loose parts on the playground. Wooden blocks, tree cookies, shovels, and wheelbarrows are favorites. Bamboo poles turn into many different items each day, as do any sticks that happen to fall on the playground. Campfires and roasting marshmallows are a favorite creation and the students often invite teachers to enjoy with them. The more playful teachers are with the students, the more creative the students seem to get.

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Our students range in age from 2 years to 6 years. With all of our age groups, we have implemented Zones of Regulation and a solutions kit. The zones help students identify how they are feeling and to make appropriate choices regarding that emotion. The original zones are Green - good to go; Blue - running slow; Yellow - I need to take caution; and Red - I need to stop. Our students have actually added to this curriculum on their own. Purple - I am feeling kind, Sparkle - I am feeling love; Disco - I'm ready to move and groove; Mindful - I am feeling mindful and I am aware; Rainbow - I don’t know how or what I am feeling; and Polka Dot - I am elated, beyond happy (actually created by one of our parents).

The solutions kit was introduced to us at a workshop on the SEFEL Pyramid model (social emotional foundations for early learning). The kit includes cards with pictures that help children problem solve on their own. For example, if someone is doing something that you do not want them to do you, can say, “Please Stop.” One card has those words with a related picture on it, and students can use it to remind them of that solution. We introduced the kit, with nine solution cards, to students at the beginning of the school year. Now when a challenging situation comes up, they no longer need the cards—they know what choices they can make to help them work through the challenge. All of what we offer (or don’t offer—such as interfering in student interactions), empowers our students to really think and make choices for themselves. This is a skill that will help them in all areas of their lives.

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We also practice being mindful through yoga and other daily activities, and implement a kindness curriculum. We read many wonderful books that teach the children about what mindfulness means. Our students learn about giving back within our school community and within our town. We are blessed to be a ministry of a church that does many community outreach programs and we work to get our families involved with many missions throughout the school year. This year, we created a fundraiser selling T-shirts with our logo and the saying, “I Choose Kind.” All of the students were able to vote on where they thought we could donate our fundraising dollars. After discussion many, many great ideas, the final vote was to help homeless people. We were able to donate almost $300 to our local soup kitchen, which helps many homeless people on a daily basis. The student involvement was so important for this fundraising effort.

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Our mindfulness activities really speak to our students. They, more so than adults, can very easily stay and be in the present moment. All of our staff have had guidance with mindfulness practices through Mindful Schools courses. The students love our Mindful Minutes, when we take a minute to just focus on one thing. It could be a beta fish, a flower, or a piece of fruit. After the minute, we take time to talk about what we noticed. Their responses amaze us on a regular basis. After a minute of focusing on a flower, for example, some responses were: “I feel healthy,” “I feel love,” and “I feel like I could stay at school all day.” One of the most important components of mindfulness that we have shared with our students is the simple act of taking a breath. Andrew Nance has created a wonderful deck of “Breathing Cards,” that describe different kinds of breath-work. The students thoroughly enjoy it and they know that taking a breath can help them to stay in the present moment and work through an emotion if they choose to do so.

In our experience at Chapel School, we see some very happy, connected preschool students. Parents often tell us they have seen their child just sitting and taking a deep breath after a tough day or when dealing with challenging emotions. Through the faith-based part of our curriculum, we work with students to create prayers and have them be thoughtful about what and who they are praying for. The students have prayed for the earth, sent loving thoughts to others, and prayed for everyone.

We have seen how amazing children are when you allow them to be their true selves. These thoughtful, caring, loving, brilliant beings have so much to teach us. As a staff, we have been guided by so many wonderful resources: Mindful Schools, Angela Hanscom’s Balanced and Barefoot book, The Zones of Regulation Social Thinking Curriculum, Solution Kits from SEFEL, Roots and Wings by Alex Koster, and, most important, by the students themselves, who show us what works for THEM. As educators, the practices help us to stay present, focused, and connected to the students, parents, and our co-workers. We all enjoy coming to school each and every day, excited to see what we can all learn together.