Don’t worry about reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic for your young children. During the preschool years, they learn all they need to know from playtime. In this episode of Parenting the Mental Health Generation, Amy and Lisa talk to Sue Carr, Director of Monona Grove Nursery School in Madison, Wisconsin, about the lessons that come from independent exploration with peers.
So put in your earbuds, take this 30 minutes for you and join our conversation because mental health matters.
Music Credit: Tune 2 go / POND 5
To find all of the resources CATCH provides to caregivers of young people struggling with their mental health, go to www.catchiscommunity.org.
Follow us on social media
CATCH, Community Action Together for Children's Health, is a 501(c)3 that provides support and education for families around mental health topics. Original content and materials from CATCH and its collaborators are for informational purposes only. They are provided as a general resource and are not specific to any person or circumstance.
[00:00:00] Dr. Lisa Novak, CATCH Board Member: It's time for another episode of Parenting the Mental Health Generation, and this month is Mental Health Awareness Month. Today, we welcome in a very special guest all the way from Madison, Wisconsin, Sue Carr. Sue is the Director of Monona Grove Nursery School and a teacher in the Penguins classroom there. She's an expert in early childhood development and education, and she also happens to be Amy's sister. Welcome. I'm Lisa.
[00:00:34] Amy O., CATCH Executive Director: And I'm the sister. I'm Amy and we are the host of today's podcast. Sue is going to share with us her valuable insights about the importance of play and independent discovery for our children's development.
[00:00:48] Lisa: Setting our kids up for success in this overscheduled and often stressful world, can't start early enough.
[00:00:56] Amy: So, put in your earbuds. Take these 30 minutes for you and join our conversation with Sue Carr. Hi.
[00:01:06] Sue Carr, Director of Monona Grove Nursery School: Hi.
[00:01:07] Amy: Welcome in.
[00:01:09] Sue Carr: Thanks. Good to be here.
[00:01:12] Amy: We're really happy to have you, especially because May is Mental Health Awareness Month and CATCH is doing a campaign called CATCH 'em Early, the importance about talking about mental health early in a child's life. We're glad to have you here to help us talk through that. Will you start, Sue, by just telling us a little bit about yourself, giving us a little background about how you got to Monona Grove Nursery School.
[00:01:38] Sue Carr: I was an elementary school teacher prior to having my kids. And then my son, my youngest, went to Monona Grove Nursery School as a kid, and when he went to kindergarten, I decided that I was not ready to leave, so I stayed. Monona Grove Nursery School is a 65-year-old parent co-op preschool. Our parents are working in our classroom every day and doing a lot of the work of the school and there's a very big long legacy here in the Madison area of people who have gone to our school participated in the co-op, and are now coming back with their own kids and in some cases, some grandkids. It's a very strong community and because it's part week, part day, parent co-op, it is very, very play-based and outside nature focused. I've been there for 20 years. I do the directing of the school and I also teach the Penguins two days a week, Thursday and Friday mornings, they're three- year-olds, and I absolutely love it.
[00:02:42] Lisa: Can you tell us a little bit about your three-year-old classroom and what the kids look like in there and what expectations are at that age for what they should be learning and how they should be growing in that classroom?
[00:02:56] Sue Carr: I think it's really an interesting age to be working with because they are so different from one another at that age, especially, you know, some of them have just turned three when they come to us, and some of us turn four right away, and that's a really big difference. The class every year, is a unique group of kids and we always try to meet them where they are. The only requirement for our school, and that's a state requirement, is that they have to be potty trained, but other than that, we have some who come in with some great social skills, have a lot of older siblings, hang out with a lot of other kids and they know how to play and share and wait for a turn and line up and all that. And, we have kids who come in who have never done any of those things and don't understand having to wait for something or share it or clean up or any of those things. So, the first couple months every year, is working on those social skills and for some kids that's the whole entire year. And for other kids, they're interested in learning how to write their name or sorting things into different colors or all those kinds of harder skills that people think about and that's great, but if they're not interested in that and they need the whole year to work on just being in a room with other kids, then that's what we do.
[00:04:21] Amy: Do you have that same philosophy when it comes to the four-year-olds in your school?
[00:04:25] Sue Carr: Yep, same exact. We are a public school 4-K program. We're part of the Madison School District for 4-K, but they have fully embraced play-based learning and so there's a little bit more testing for the four-year-olds before they go to kindergarten, but we still have in a three-hour program about 45 minutes on the playground and about an hour and 20 minutes of uninterrupted play in our classroom. So, it's, it's very little other than that.
[00:04:57] Lisa: Let's talk a little bit about the philosophy around play-based learning, especially for our littles and how that compares, I guess, or contrasts against what I would expect would be more like academic-based learning.
[00:05:11] Sue Carr: We have really evolved, I would say over the last 15 years or so, and then even more kind of during and after Covid. We don't do anything where kids are sitting at desks or tables except for snack. We have circle time, but we try to make it as active as possible. And it's most of the time optional for kids. So, if they don't feel like they can sit in a circle calmly, or keep their hands to themselves, they can choose to do something else quietly in the room. During the open free playtime, they do have complete control over what they do unless they need to share it or wait for a turn or that kind of thing. But we don't ever say, go to this center and learn math and then go here and write your name, and they make independent choices the whole time. We talk to them a lot about their choices and what they can do. And, we talk to them a lot about their interactions. I think that we're very lucky because we are a parent co-op. There's a parent in the background, cleaning up the snack, setting up the snack, cleaning up a mess, washing the paintbrushes. And so, both teachers, we teach in teams, we all try to really focus on those interactions, both us and the kids, and facilitating interactions between the kids.
[00:06:30] Amy: So, when you have this kind of open play every day uninterrupted for almost an hour and a half is a long time,
[00:06:38] Sue Carr: Mm-hmm.
[00:06:39] Amy: is there any particular skill or particular thing that you're asking the kids to concentrate on that day or that week, or is it truly just this is your time to explore independently in whatever manner you want.
[00:06:55] Sue Carr: Sometimes we have themes and we switch up our room stuff according to a theme, but in terms of the skills that we try to work on, I would say that really, it's just kindness, always. That's all. Don't hit somebody because you want their toy. Don't use mean words that would hurt people's feelings. We do a lot of things that emerges out of Conscious discipline, which is a Becky Bailey program where you talk about the school family. So, for example, we count the kids every day. We figure out who's home sick, and then we put all of the love in our heart out into the world for that person who's home feeling sick. So, it's all kind of based on relationships. And building those relationships between the kids, with us and the kids, and between the parent and the kids who was there, the whole thing. There's a lot of like kind of family building, trust building, relationship building going on.
[00:07:48] Amy: I just want to clarify one more time, since we're talking about the entire preschool, and I know that you're teaching in the Penguins, which is the three-year-olds. But when you speak, are you talking about across the board here? Really? I mean, I realize it'll be somewhat different for four-year-olds and pre-K, but.
[00:08:03] Sue Carr: Our philosophy is across the board, philosophy, play-based, relationship-based.
[00:08:10] Lisa: Can you give us a little more insight into the value of play-based learning and what that is in fact doing for our children and how that's setting them up for later success?
[00:08:20] Sue Carr: Mm-hmm. I think that over the years, we've read a lot of studies, we've learned a lot about the actual skills that kids need when they're in kindergarten and first grade and it isn't reading and writing and math. It's negotiating caring about other people, sharing, all those kinds of things and that is what you learned during play. We often have a situation where they're playing and there's a toy that more than one person wants and so teaching them the skills to be able to negotiate that. And, it's interesting because sometimes when we're with parents in our classroom, the parents will say, " Well, do you have another fire truck, because they both want the fire truck?" And I'll say "No, but one of them can wait and the other one can know that they have X number of minutes." We have a large variety of timers in our room so that the kids know that they're going to pick the green timer, it's going to be five minutes. We try to teach them to say to your friend, "I'm setting this timer when this timer's over, it's my turn," and then they both try to get there. Having the parents in the room, allows us to be able to also do a little parent training while we're there to say, you know,
[00:09:31] Amy: Wait, parents need training?
[00:09:36] Sue Carr: To say, they don't need that item right now. Watch them wait. We also have a lot of waiting lists, you have to wait for a turn in the water table. You have to wait for a turn. Things get full. It's teaching them that they can negotiate themselves for the things that they want, and those are the skills that they need when they go to a bigger school and with bigger kids. And onward and onward and onward.
[00:09:59] Amy: And this philosophy is based on what, data shows or science shows is developmentally appropriate. Is that right?
[00:10:07] Sue Carr: Yes, it is not developmentally appropriate to be teaching three-year-olds and four-year-olds to read. It is not developmentally appropriate for them to be sitting anywhere for more than three or four or five minutes. They need to be moving their bodies. Moving their hands. Doing all kinds of different things that builds up their resilience to, and their negotiating skills and all of those things. And, they need to be talking and talking about how they feel about something that happened to them, how they think their friend feels about something that happened to them, how they think their teacher might feel.
[00:10:44] Lisa: All of what you said makes a lot of sense. I think the question becomes, and this is one that I hear a lot, yes, I want my children to play, of course, I value their socialization skills and their emotional development. And, I want to make sure that I'm preparing them for what comes next. And so, I can tell you, even in my mind as I listen to you talk and as somebody who has a preschooler currently entering kindergarten next year, one of the thoughts that pops into my head is, if they're not expected to stay in circle time, if they don't want to, and they can go play another activity, how are they going to navigate that this Fall when the expectations really are vastly different than that? And, you know, being a neuropsych, I actually get to observe classrooms all over the North Shore and see that there is lengthy circle time where kids are expected to stay seated, and there are a lot of these demands placed on them. How do we answer that question?
[00:11:45] Sue Carr: Well, I think there's two things. One is that when they are experiencing that a year later in kindergarten, it is a whole year later, and for them it is, you know, 20% of their 25% of their life later. They will have a lot more skill and ability to be able to do that. The other thing is that we are preparing kids for kindergarten, but we also want to be very present in where they are right now. And so, our whole focus can't be, this is what's coming down the line and therefore our practice is going to be not what we think is the best, but what we think we have to do in order to prepare them for what's coming down the line. And I think, we do as the year goes on, increase kind of the expectation that they're going to be able to do a longer and longer circle time perhaps, or, that they can learn adaptations for circle time. So, for example, if someone feels like they're not going to be able to sit for the whole time without poking somebody, they can get a fidget. And, that's something that they can do in kindergarten too and in first grade, and that their parents can advocate for, for them. They can do this, but they need this thing, or they need to sit on a certain kind of chair. A lot of teachers in kindergarten and first grade these days are really understanding alternate seating and bouncy seats and all that kind of stuff, so, I think part of it is educating the kid and educating the parent to say, yeah, they have to do this in school, but they will be more successful if they have X, Y, and Z in place for them to be able to attend to the task.
[00:13:26] Amy: Hey Sue. Will you also just talk to us or talk with us a little bit about. First of all, I agree completely with what you're saying, and having spent some time in a first-grade classroom, I think what you're saying makes a whole lot of sense that I hadn't thought about before, which is we can't prepare them for what's coming down the pike other than to prepare them with their own self-confidence and their own belief in themselves to be able to do what's coming down the pike.
[00:13:49] Sue Carr: Right.
[00:13:50] Amy: Can you speak to us or talk to us a little bit about what happens when you try to force a kid, a little kid, a three, a four-year-old-kid to do things that are not developmentally appropriate for him and what that might do to his or her, or their psyche or development.
[00:14:06] Sue Carr: I will say that at least our school and every school I know has been struggling with a significant increase in behavior issues since we came back to school after the pandemic. And, these are kids now who were born basically in the pandemic and are coming to school as three-year-olds. I think sometimes when we're looking at those behaviors, we think to ourselves, what is it that we really need this kid to understand? Is it lining up appropriately without pushing or whatever? Or, is it that the teacher is there to both make sure that he is safe and to make sure that his classmates are safe and so we can adapt to that and we can make changes. We're very aware that we are the first school experience for these kids, and so we want to make sure that we do everything we can do to make sure that their first school experience is a positive one. And we're not going to do that by making them into something that they're not. So, if they aren't ready to line up and be able to walk down the hall, then maybe we don't have that expectation for that kid. Maybe that kid goes at the end and goes at his own pace and we wait, or we whatever. But for us, there are not a lot of things that you have to do. You have to wash your hands after you go to the bathroom. That's the one thing you have to do. You have to wash your hands before you eat. Then, we are flexible about it and we just say, you can make a choice. Here are your choices. Let's decide what would make you feel the most comfortable. When you don't acknowledge that a kid is not ready to sit, still crisscross applesauce on the carpet and you force them to do that, it just creates this sense of what school is that we don't want to do.
[00:15:57] Amy: Well, and it
elevates the tension not only with the kid, but for the teacher, for the entire classroom. It changes the entire dynamic because you're
[00:16:05] Sue Carr: Yeah.
[00:16:06] Amy: on something that may not even be within this kid's ability. Yeah,
[00:16:11] Lisa: Do you talk with parents at all about how to transfer some of these skills and this approach, I should say, back into the home environment? You know, I'm sitting here thinking, wow, you know, the sense of agency that these kids must be developing by really having their own choices and their autonomy about what they do and don't do, and they're not being pressured or guided too heavily. I mean, that sounds incredible. And, at the same time, beyond washing hands, after using the bathroom at home, they've got to brush their teeth and get into the shower and put their pajamas on and get ready for bed. And, there are inherently more expectations. How do you share that with parents, how they can go about doing those things still in a play-based, autonomy centered way?
[00:16:56] Sue Carr: As a parent co-op, we're required to provide a certain amount of parent education every year in the state of Wisconsin. So, we do have parent meetings where we bring in experts and they talk about things. And, a lot of the time it's exactly that kind of thing, setting up routines and how to resolve discipline issues. What I always say to parents is, your child is able to understand the difference between a choice and not a choice, and so I think sometimes parents don't take the time to just actually talk to their kid. Even their three-year-old and say, I understand that you don't like to brush your teeth, but that's something that you have to do. So, let's work together to figure out how and when and what would make that something that you're able to do. Maybe they make a chart of the five things they have to do before they go to bed and the kid gets to move a magnet or whatever,
[00:17:56] Amy: See how lucky I am that this is my kid's aunt.
[00:18:02] Sue Carr: Ditto.
[00:18:02] Amy: That's being a little bit sappy, but I'm serious.
[00:18:05] Sue Carr: But I think then there are also the things that they have choices about, right? Like you have to brush your teeth, but you can decide whether or not you want to wear pajamas because you don't care about the pajamas and if they want to sleep, "nini", as we would say in my family then that's fine. But you know, when you give them the authority to make some of the decisions, they're going to be more open to the fact that they have to do some of these things. So, you know, people say to me, oh, my kid won't sleep in the bed. They'll sleep on the floor. And I say, does that really matter? Is that really what you, what you want to let them sleep on the floor? Eventually, when they're 14 and they're big and gangly, they'll be like, "Hey, a bed is really comfortable." And, that's fine. But kind of making that distinction and making it clear, like where their choices are, I think is something that parents don't understand. They can have an open conversation with the kid about and the kid's going to understand.
[00:19:04] Amy: I don't know if this is something you ever thought about before, but when you were talking, I wondered if part of what happens in your classroom or at your school, is that kids learn how to ask for help. Because they're, you know, just sort of maneuvering their way through the classroom as over the course of a day
is part of what you emphasize to them "We'll ask Ms. Sue for help."
[00:19:31] Sue Carr: Mm-hmm.
[00:19:32] Amy: Or, ask Ms. Jodi for help and that then empowers them going forward to ask for help if they're in a classroom where they feel as though they're not navigating well or they can't handle it or whatever.
[00:19:44] Sue Carr: We also tell them a lot, " Is there someone in this room that you think might be able to help you with that?" Like, we have two kids who know how to zip and nobody else knows how to zip. So, when we put on our coats, if Jody and I are both zipping, zipping, zipping and they're waiting, I'll say, "Well, look, Jack's right there. You know, that Jack knows how to zip, see if he can help you zip." And then Jack's like, "Yes, yes, I can help you." Or, the other day we have this little penguin that's our class motto, and I brought him home to wash him and I lost him in my house. Okay, yes, I did. I lost him for a couple days. And so, we had this entire day on Friday of the kids’ generating suggestions for what I could do to find Tux in my house. And of course, they were hilarious, and kids said to me with very earnest faces, have you thought about retracing your steps? Yes. Good suggestion. Love it. So, they're problem solving for me, but they're also learning problem solving skills so when they lose something, they're going to say, "Oh, you know, when Sue lost Tux in her house, George suggested that she retrace her steps. I'm going to retrace my steps." And then, on and on. So then, I did find him, I wrote them a little story and sent a picture and an email about how helpful they all were with all of their suggestions about how to find him and where he could be in my house. It's that kind of problem solving that if I'm modeling it, and I tell this to parents all the time, if you're modeling it, they're going to take it in and they're going to be like, how can I solve my own problem? What can I do to solve the problem that I'm having, because I watched Sue do it?
[00:21:36] Lisa: What I'm hearing you say is we're not forcing academic achievement on our children, but learning is happening all day. Learning life skills and learning socialization skills and learning all independence and learning all the things they're going to need to, to do those academic pieces later.
[00:22:00] Sue Carr: Right, because eventually they're going to have a story problem or something, right? That's going to be like so and so lost her so, I mean, it's those things that build things up. And, it did really help me because I did retrace my steps.
[00:22:12] Amy: Has Monona Grove Nursery School always been play-based?
[00:22:15] Sue Carr: Yes.
[00:22:16] Amy: And, I know that there are going to be people in our audience that are going to be saying to themselves, Yeah, but what happens? Does she have any data about what happens to these kids when they enter kindergarten and first grade? Are the play-based kids doing all right? What do you know about that?
[00:22:33] Sue Carr: Well, I know a couple things. First of all, there are a significant number of kids each year in both classes who, yes, it's totally play-based, but they are totally into learning the academic stuff. And so, for example, early childhood kind of wisdom is that you have every kid's name somewhere in the room 10 times. So, we have their names everywhere and they're not only learning their own name, but they're learning everybody else's name. And we're talking about who's taking the treasure box home. The person begins with an "s" and everyone's guessing. And, as the year goes on, they get better. Those are academic skills, but it's all in fun. What we've heard from kindergarten teachers and from parents who have gone to kindergarten is that the teachers in particular, and they've been saying this for as long as I can remember, the social skills and the ability to get along and the ability to wait, share, concern for others, keeping your hands safe, all that kind of stuff are much more important skills at that age than anything that could be academic. I really believe too, just from my own experience with maybe even my own kids, that if you are really, really trying to make someone learn their letters and numbers that is not ready to even sit still, it's futile. Everyone eventually learns how to read. And you know, there are some schools of thought in the world where kids don't get formally taught to read till, they're seven or eight, and we just keep pushing it.
[00:24:11] Amy: Scandinavian countries. Yep.
[00:24:13] Sue Carr: We just keep pushing it down and pushing it down and pushing it down. When I started 20 years ago, parents didn't really ask me in the three-year-old class if their kid was going to learn to write their name. And now they ask me all the time and I say, if that person is interested in writing their name, I will certainly help them. But, three years old, especially if you just turned three and you were two a month ago, is not the time for you to be holding a pencil. The role of preschool is to have you play with Play-Doh so that in two years you can hold a pencil. Not now. I have never heard anyone come back and say they were not academically prepared for kindergarten. I've sent some kids out there with a lot of instruction and direction for the parents about how to both advocate for their kid in the public schools and how to help their kid navigate what will be coming potentially in a bigger, more structured environment.
[00:25:10] Lisa: You're making them emotionally prepared so that they can handle what comes next.
[00:25:15] Sue Carr: Mm-hmm.
[00:25:16] Lisa: And
[00:25:17] Sue Carr: That's right.
[00:25:18] Lisa: one thing I wanted to circle back to quickly is you made a comment about what you're seeing now post Covid and in the return to school. Can you speak a little bit to how you're navigating some of the newer behavioral challenges you're seeing? I know many of our listeners have expressed concern with that.
[00:25:38] Sue Carr: Our kids have never had a ton of social interaction because, you know, they're three. They didn't usually come to us from big centers or big daycares. They usually came from a stay-at-home situation. And now, what we're seeing is kids who have literally never played with another kid in real life. And so, those skills are lacking and I think we don't pay enough attention to the fact that people who had babies or little tiny babies when Covid started, were quite panicked and whether or not
[00:26:10] Amy: Lisa does not know anything about this considering her son is two.
[00:26:15] Lisa: I don't have any idea what you're talking about right now.
[00:26:18] Amy: I did not see her panic at all during Covid. No Uhuh.
[00:26:21] Lisa: Nope.
[00:26:23] Sue Carr: But we don't think that the kids caught onto it and of course they did. They knew that people were tense and that they were constantly being told to hand sanitize and put on a mask and wash their hands and, and that it was an unusual thing. And so, we are in a process now of telling the kids it's okay. You can sit next to your friend, you can talk to your friend, you can take your mask off. We're mask optional now, but some kids still wear a mask and we have one little guy, every day we have to say, it's okay to take your mask off while you have snack. You can't eat your snack unless your mask is off, and he's very tentative about that. He's just not sure. That's a level of fear that is just from Covid.
[00:27:10] Lisa: Yeah.
[00:27:11] Sue Carr: Kids who want to wash their hands a lot, that's what that is. The other thing that we don't talk about enough is that I think that kids, and this is true maybe of older kids, and kids that I taught through the pandemic, but they have become even more screen savvy than they used to be.
They were already way too screen savvy as it is. When I watched these little, like two- and three-year-olds in the halls, swiping and knowing how to look through the pictures. We're really encouraging through educating our parents, presenting articles, things like that, you need to break the screen habit. And, you need to be incredibly limiting about how much screen time your kid is getting now that the world has opened up, now that it's nice and they can be outside. I think it was a problem before and I think being home, trying to work, trying to manage everything has let it become even a bigger, a bigger obstacle. There's a lot to be said for go outside with this stick and this empty box and do something and it doesn't need to make noise or have shiny lights and kids are struggling with that.
[00:28:18] Lisa: I think that's a perfect place to end here because these additional layers of what we're seeing in our kids make it all that much more important that we're centering them and bringing them back to the skills that are really important for their development and growth at this age.
[00:28:36] Amy: Were there any other nuggets you want to leave us with Sue? Other than, the power of being bored and letting your kids figure out how to fill themselves and fill their buckets, what else would you want to leave our audience with?
[00:28:50] Sue Carr: Well, I think one of the things that we've talked about a lot in the last few years, just in terms of our school, is doing a good evaluation of risk when they want to do things. And we had a big debate on our staff about kids going up the slide which is kind of the classic, right? And, we have worked out a system for them to be able to go both up and down the slide and how to not make that into a crash. And so, I find myself saying a lot to parents and to my staff, what would really be the harm in that other than they could potentially get hurt, which they can potentially get hurt no matter what they do. But you know, is there really a harm to them doing something that will make them feel strong, independent, confident? Look what I did. When they first are able to go up the slide and grip with their toes and grip with their hands and get to the top and the whole class is cheering. That's a huge thing for them. And yet, I see so many parents, carrying their three-year-olds in or taking off their, you know, they can do it and you have to let them do it. So, I guess my final little nugget would be hands off, let them do it.
[00:30:04] Lisa: I'm having trouble.
[00:30:05] Amy: That's what we're titling this thing.
[00:30:07] Lisa: I'm having trouble hearing you with these earphones on here. Can you say that one more time louder just for me? Sue, thank you. Thank you for joining us today for all of this brilliant wisdom, and I hope you and Amy both know that I expect an invitation at your next family dinner, so I will.
[00:30:28] Sue Carr: They are fun Lisa. I will say that they're fun.
[00:30:33] Amy: Thank you, Sue. Love you.
[00:30:35] Sue Carr: Sure. Thank you. Thank you for doing such great work with CATCH. It's an amazing organization.
[00:30:41] Lisa: love it. And thank you for our listeners for tuning in stay current on all CATCH programming by liking us on Facebook @catchiscommunity or by visiting our website. Catchiscommunity.org.
[00:30:54] Amy: We are glad that you joined us to continue the conversation. It's important to talk about our mental health. And reach out for help if needed.