Lizard Brains & Other Learnings from the Preschool Classroom
My professional journey into early childhood education surprised me. Childsplay, the theatre for young audiences where I work, was invited to be a keynote experience at a local Head Start conference.
At this time, we were heavily focused on Drama Frames, an Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination grant program funded by the U.S. Department of Education, working with fourth through sixth grade teachers to integrate drama into writing. So we jumped into this preschool venture blind, and totally fell in love. We left the conference energized about preschool and drama. After a glimpse into the work of early childhood education (ECE), we wanted to stay.
Excited about new possibilities, we took our professional development model to The Helios Education Foundation and proposed that we revise this model for drama and literacy in the ECE classroom. They looked at us and said "no," politely pointing out to us: "you know education, and you know drama, but you don't know anything about preschool." We had to agree.
What happened next changed the course of our project forever. Helios gave us an incredible opportunity. Instead of turning us down outright, they gave us a training grant. We suddenly had the luxury of 18 months to bring in experts, read books, ask questions, and observe the world of ECE!
We assembled a team of artists and together we set forth reading stacks of books, ranging from Developmentally Appropriate Practice to Bright From the Start. We met with experts on child development, how children learn to read, emergent bilingualism, children who have experienced trauma, drama with preschoolers, and with Arizona’s early childhood literary specialists.
We learned that children under the age of four have a hard time clapping, because clapping crosses the center line, so patting out words is a more accessible way to experience rhythm. We learned that children have to hear a word 15–20 times before it becomes part of their vocabulary. We learned that sometimes letting children in on a surprise beforehand only makes the reveal more exciting, (and perhaps less likely to induce tears).
We learned about what we call “Lizard Brain” around the office. When children are very upset, their brains function in the brainstem, the reptile part of the brain where basic functions are processed. So when a child (or a coworker) is really having a tantrum—it’s useless to reason with them until they calm down and their processing moves into the pre-frontal cortex.
As we discovered more and more, we realized our instincts were right in the first place. Drama is a perfect fit in the preschool classroom.
Re-educated we started re-modeling. We spent weeks locked away in Childsplay's conference room adapting our professional development model and creating new standards of practice. It was grueling and also incredible.
Instead of trying to plan and implement simultaneously we had time to be mindful of every step. I'd never had this kind of opportunity at my workplace before, for our entire team to simply learn together.
I can’t fit 18 months of work into a paragraph, but I do want to tell you a little bit about EYEPlay.
Here’s some of our highlights:
- The program is job embedded, meaning that the bulk of the work happens with the teacher in their classroom.
- We work in a 1:1 pairing. One teaching artist with one classroom teacher.
- Every lesson focuses on one Drama Frame the pairing of a literacy standard with a drama strategy (like vocabulary development and pantomime).
- EYEPlay gives teachers the chance to work intensely on drama strategies for a year and a half. That’s three full semesters of programming, moving from introduction to practice to reality.
- Understanding the need to quantitatively assess our work, we created a facilitation rubric. We use this as a piece of our research to track teacher change over time.
The ECE landscape in Arizona varies widely. Literacy has reached a critical juncture in Arizona, only 26% of 4th grade students can read at grade level. The early years are important, a child's brain is 90% developed by the time he or she is five-years-old and the experiences they have as a preschooler contribute to success later in life.
I can't help but have those facts in my mind each time I enter a classroom. I know this work isn't solving every problem that these kids face. Not every teacher I work with will continue to use drama in their practice. Not every lesson I do is going to give kids new vocabulary words. But we are in this for the long haul, and I do think that for every unsuccessful lesson there are three more that make an impact.
We are still forging our path. Last Thursday, for example, we had a three-hour meeting to negotiate some ideas we thought we handled in our research phase. These elements which can sometimes feel like the most frustrating are actually the most rewarding.
Even though EYEPlay is now a fully-funded, fully-functioning piece of Childsplay, it is still being collaboratively developed. The teaching artists working in the classrooms have a meaningful say in the continual development of the program.
My experience with EYEPlay has made me into an advocate not only for the arts to have a place at this table, but for the importance of early childhood education in the place where I work and live.