Early Education: How Schools Are Jumpstarting Childrens’ Learning, Even Before the First Grade

Preschool is a pivotal time in your keiki’s young life, helping to lay the foundation for their success, not just cognitively, but socially and emotionally. Recent neurological research validating the importance of early education is giving families more reasons to send their children to preschool. Here are what some of Hawai‘i’s independent schools are doing to jumpstart your child’s love of learning.
The precocious preschooler.
Photos: Karen DB Photography 


Adozen eager 4- and 5-year-olds sit patiently at the wooden,  keiki-size picnic tables outside of their classroom on a sunny Thursday morning. It’s snack time, and today the teacher is serving up scoops of yogurt and jam with honey and sliced apples. The students gobble it up and then help wash their bowls and spoons before running out, many of them barefoot, to play in the yard, shaded by large monkeypod trees.


This is a preschool class at Honolulu Waldorf School, its lower campus tucked into a Niu Valley neighborhood. The school follows the educational philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, who founded a teaching approach based on how children mentally and physically develop. Honolulu Waldorf has a comprehensive early-education program, beginning with infancy during the Parent and Child Program and ending with kindergarten. Throughout the school day children play, both indoors and out, paint, listen to stories, sing, bake and more. These creative activities build their motor skills and engage their imaginations.


Early education is a hot topic across the nation. Locally, there have been determined efforts to get more kids in class before kindergarten. As part of his overall plan for the state, entitled a New Day in Hawai‘i, this summer Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed into law a preschool program for 4-year-olds, slated to begin in fall 2014. It all comes down to school readiness and making sure children are prepared socially, emotionally and cognitively for grade school: For 4- and 5-year-olds, readiness doesn’t necessarily mean knowing how to say your ABCs or count to 100. More and more, educators foster what’s known as 21st-century values for their students. These include critical thinking, teamwork, integrity and more. These skills not only make the transition to grade school smoother, they also help children blossom into well-rounded adults.


Current neurological research backs up the benefits of early learning, too. Did you know that more than 80 percent of a person’s brain develops between birth and age 5? Children who skip preschool miss out on essential development opportunities.


Robert Peters, the head of Hanahau‘oli School, and an advisory board member of Abercrombie’s Executive Office on Early Learning, says children who don’t have a preschool experience are playing catch-up by the time they enter school. “We know from the research that children who don’t have preschool experience have a gap to make up,” he says. “Oftentimes there’s a language gap as much as an experiential gap … and it can be really challenging,” he says. “Going to preschool not only helps develop language, but experience as well, as it really gives children the opportunity to work in a social group.”


Herein lies the importance of early education: It provides your child with rich interactive environments, at a point in their lives when they’re rapidly developing. While Hawai‘i’s private schools offer different educational philosophies, when it comes to early childhood learning, there are a few commonalities present in successful programs so that, by the end of the school year (or second year, if they started when they were 3), children will be more prepared, and excited, to enter grade school.


The Importance of Play

The precocious preschooler.You might remember your own preschool or kindergarten experience, building with blocks, painting pictures for Mom’s or Auntie’s fridge, playing tag outside. Early education isn’t significantly different today. When your child enters preschool, much of her or his day will be spent playing. But it goes deeper than playing dress up or swinging from the monkey bars: Preschool isn’t glorified daycare. Schools today recognize that playing allows students to develop their motor skills, engage their imaginations, problem solve, learn to express their emotions and even begin understanding societal constructs. 


“It’s intentional play,” says Robert Witt, the executive director of the Hawai‘i Association of Independent Schools (HAIS). “It’s experiential, hands-on, fun activities that appeal to the young child’s curiosity. They are inherently curious and on a mission to learn as much as they can about the world around them.”


At Montessori Community School, this year celebrating its 40th anniversary, the preschoolers learn through their own self-guided activities, either by themselves, or with their classmates. Children build with pink geometric cubes, make puzzles and number boards, and begin learning the alphabet by tracing sandpaper letters with their fingers.


“Practice and repetition until they understand the concept is key [at] Montessori,” says Kathy Shirakawa, the school admissions director. She adds that early-education teachers help direct the children with these different activities.


Visit the Honolulu Waldorf School’s lower campus, which houses students from early education until eighth grade, and you’ll notice a natural, inviting campus. The classrooms are all wood, even the arched ceilings. The children in the Kukui Nursery (ages 2 1/2 through 3 years, 9 months) paint with real watercolors, sculpt with beeswax, bake healthy bread, sing, play with dolls made from wool and flannel (the kindergarten class even makes its own dolls and clothes for it) and act out stories they create from the dress-up corner.


“Children are sponges, so the environment, the toys, the room and how it’s set up, the adults and how they behave toward each other, the teachers with the parents, the teachers with the children—the children just soak up everything,” says Roberta Ducharme, the Kukui Nursery teacher.


“It’s about stimulating, but not overstimulating,” adds Honolulu Waldorf School teacher and lower-school coordinator Katherine Dwyer. “We’re really conscious of what will affect this child all around.”


Outdoor activities are a big part of the day for the students at Hongwanji Mission School. After all, the preschoolers are in school from 7 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.! The school has a full-size swimming pool on campus, where children learn to swim. “While [Hongwanji] is academically focused, we recognize that it needs to be well-rounded with free play and develop all aspects of the child,” says David Randall, the head of school. The campus also boasts two gardens: one in which the students tend Native Hawaiian plants, the other where the kids grow and harvest vegetables. The little ones learn to develop their green thumbs by doing “cup-gardening,” says Randall. 


Curiosity Reigns

The precocious preschooler.
Photo: Karen DB Photography


In the course of all this playing, it’s only natural that preschoolers ask about the world around them. A good preschool program takes advantage of a child’s inherent—and often around-the-clock—inquisitiveness. Engaging your child’s curiosity, both at home and at school, lays the foundation for their critical-thinking skills, and it will only add to their love of learning.


Children should be excited to come to school, ready to learn as much as they can, says Cathy Ogawa, the HAIS early childhood accreditation and licensing coordinator. “If you squelch that from the beginning,” she says, “Well, you’ve got at least 13 more years of school to go through.”


Some early-education programs have developed entire curriculums around young children’s questions and the way in which they explore the world around them. At Mid-Pacific Institute, these questions help structure the children’s learning environment.


“We look for questions that children repeatedly ask in their play,” says Edna Hussey, the elementary school principal. She explains that the teachers then have additional research questions that guide their interactions with their students.


The Mid-Pac preschoolers recently asked, What is the wind? They felt it, and saw the trades blowing the palm trees and rippling the pool water. “We took the children to the places where they felt the wind and they expressed it in drawings,” says Hussey. “We discovered [they] have theories about how wind functions.” Next, they partnered with high school students, who helped them create videos by animating their pictures with sound and movement. In the end, it was a successful, collaborative project. Hussey says the teachers were amazed at what the 4-year-olds did, with something they couldn’t see. “Children have amazing depth perception and powers of observation,” she says.


Both Island Pacific Academy in Kapolei, and Le Jardin Academy in Kailua similarly structure their early-education programs, based on interacting with the children and their natural inquisitiveness. In education speak, it’s known as inquiry-based curriculum. Both schools are International Baccalaureate schools and have been following the model for years.


A main goal is to encourage kids to try new things, and teach them that no question is wrong. Students gain empathy for different types of learners. Some are auditory, some are oral, some are visual, and children are allowed to take that strength and discover, discuss and participate.


One question-based unit at Island Pacific Academy explores the subject of jobs. The teacher brought in a big box filled with “tools” from various jobs to let the kids explore what each object was and learn how it related to different professions. They researched jobs at the library and, as a special treat, local police officers and firefighters visited campus, and brought their cars and trucks with them, to talk and show students about their lines of work. On another day, the children went to Costco and saw how its back-of-house operates.


The junior kindergarten students at Le Jardin Academy do a unit called Bugs ‘n’ Us. Francoise Akina, the junior school principal, says the class spent a lot of time outdoors this past school year answering questions the children came up with: Do centipedes bite or sting? Are all baby bugs larvae? How do crickets make their sound? “Learning is most effective when a student is actively engaged in the learning process rather than attempting to receive knowledge passively,” she says. 


“Learning is most effective when a student is actively engaged in the learning process rather than attempting to receive knowledge passively.”
—Francoise Akina

The outside environment has a big impact on the children at Ka‘ahumanu Hou Christian School, on Maui. Part of Noah’s Ark Preschool, the preschoolers even conduct simple science experiments, says principal Joni Uemura. She adds that the class takes regular field trips geared around what’s being learned on campus.


At Hanahau‘oli School, hidden behind the tall, mock orange hedge on Makiki Street, students in the junior kindergarten classroom bring their thoughts to life with the idea box. The box is filled with all sorts of things, from buttons to toilet paper rolls, pieces of cloth, pipe cleaners and more. “As they’re working on things, if they come up with an idea for something they want to build, they will create it out of this idea box,” says Peters. “It gives kids the idea that they can create and problem solve.” The children recently learned about different tools, what their uses are and how they work. In the classroom were several “new tools” created from the idea box.


The Role of Technology

Today’s preschool students were born into a digital world. But using technology in an early-childhood classroom can be a balancing act. As electronic devices become more commonplace in schools, and children learn to use them at earlier ages, early-childhood educators debate the advantages and drawbacks. Different schools have different approaches, find what works best for your child.


In line with their educational philosophies, you won’t find an iPad or a laptop in the preschool classrooms at the Honolulu Waldorf School or the Montessori Community School. Both schools wait until children are older before introducing technology.


Waldorf teacher Katherine Dwyer says young children behave better when they’re not exposed to media. The staff encourages limited use of technology for its early-childhood students.


Other schools enthusiastically embrace tech in class, especially because, let’s face it, 4-year-olds already know how to use Dad’s iPhone, or grandma’s computer. Both Le Jardin and Island Pacific academies integrate iPads and laptops into their curriculum. They are tools for the teachers, too, adds Akina. “It gives teachers the capability to share learning experiences with parents and others,” she says. At Le Jardin, teachers video chat with each other and parents. They also use technology as an assessment tool and to further their professional development.


This fall, students at Hongwanji Mission School will have classroom iPads. But technology is just another learning tool for the kids, not a replacement for hands-on activities and playtime. “And we’re not doing away with paper and pencil,” says Randall, the Hongwanji head of school with a laugh.


Teachers at Hanahau‘oli School also have about four computers in the junior kindergarten classroom, but Peters says teachers employ them with a “measured approach. It’s an issue we continue to talk about,” he says. “[Students] use it to enhance a current experience and do something more efficiently and provide experiences they couldn’t otherwise have.” 


HAIS also stresses a balance when it comes to little ones and the screen time they get. “Technology should be paired with education in a way, but it shouldn’t be used totally as a way to teach children,” says Shelly Nakamura of HAIS. “I think nature is important, because children should learn to explore the world and technology misses that, it’s very one dimensional.”


Regardless of whether these programs use technology or not, there’s a strong emphasis on the arts in preschool. Children spend more time playing and engaging in hands-on activities, whether in a group, or alone. Mid-Pacific preschoolers work in the school’s studio, working with the “languages of expression,” says Hussey. “Through material, we help provide children with different ‘languages’ to communicate their understanding.” The children create using paint, clay, wire, charcoal, shells, rocks, leaves and more.


Getting Ready for Preschool

Preschool is the perfect time to take advantage of children’s thirst for knowledge, their curiosity about the world around them, their desire to watch you, big sister or Miss Ducharme do something and then mimic it. These programs help them socialize in a larger setting, where they can learn to communicate, create in a variety of mediums and continually problem solve.


Parents may feel the pressure to prep their little ones for their first day of preschool, and start laying ground work for their foray into private education before they’re even born! Despite the competitive environment and limited space, parents should relax, say HAIS staffers.


So, what are the best ways to help your son or daughter get ready for preschool? For one, don’t worry about getting a tutor in hopes of acing the interview process, says Ogawa, who says she regularly tells parents to skip tutoring for their little ones. “The best experience for your children is to foster creativity at home and read to them,” she says.  


“The best experience for your children is to foster creativity at home and read to them.” 
—Cathy Ogawa

And enjoy this time in your child’s life. Childhood goes by quickly, says Hussey, who has gotten to know many preschoolers during her time at Mid-Pacific. “We have to nurture it and guide it,” she says. “[Preschool develops] those skills that will sustain them for a lifetime: creativity, the ability to imagine, to speculate, to problem solve … They carry through as you get older.”


What’s Best for Your Child?

Different schools have different educational philosophies.

What kind of approach is the best fit for your child?

  • Montessori Community School: The Montessori philosophy promotes self-directed learning to foster individual development and independence, starting as early as the school’s toddler program for 2-year-olds.

  • Honolulu Waldorf School: This school keeps a child’s physical and cognitive development in mind when engaging the children in creative activities and indoor and outdoor play.

  • Hanahau‘oli School: The school’s educators emphasize learning by doing, and build a curriculum around a child’s experiences; it’s a progressive school following the philosophy of John Dewey.

  • Mid-Pacific Institute: Self-guided learning, with the curriculum arising from the children’s own questions about the world around them. It’s based on an educational philosophy from the city of Reggio Emilia in Italy.

  • Island Pacific Academy and Le Jardin Academy International Baccalaureate schools: The curriculum is structured around a child’s curiosity and questions.

  • Hongwanji Mission School: Teaches children in the Buddhist philosophy and adheres to a strong academic curriculum.

  • Ka‘ahumanu Hou Christian School (Maui): The curriculum emphasizes Christianity.

This story originally appeared in the 2014 Private School Guide.