UM Early Childhood Education Students Teach Preschoolers Through Play

By Abigail Lauten-Scrivner, UM News Service

MISSOULA – Children enrolled in the Learning and Belonging Preschool at the University of Montana spend four days a week playing, exploring and growing in vibrant classrooms stocked with just about everything a young child could want to get their hands on – even a class pet snake. The one thing the preschool lacks is an outdoor playhouse. This semester, the 3, 4 and 5-year-olds are leading the charge to solve that problem.

The preschoolers have spent months answering the question of what their new playground needs and dreaming big about the possibilities. Some ideas are lofty, like building a skyscraper that reaches the clouds or constructing an all-you-can-eat ice cream machine. Teachers distill those daydreams into feasible ideas and present options for the children to choose from themselves.

While the plan is to eventually unveil a playground that is as influenced by the children’s wishes as possible, the larger goal is to engage preschoolers in developmentally-appropriate learning, all through the act of play.

“When they play, they are choosing what they’re most interested in,” LAB Preschool Director Kristin Dahl Horejsi says. “We know that they learn better when they’re interested.”

The exercise is emblematic of the philosophy at the core of UM’s early childhood education programs. Using a project-based learning approach and following the ideology that plays is learning, budding early childhood educators encourage young children to actively guide their own schooling.

Classrooms such as these are an invaluable resource in a state like Montana – one of only a few in the country without publicly funded preschool. While supportive community-based programs for young children or private preschools exist throughout the state, early childhood educators say the lack of regulation and funding creates disparities. It also builds obstacles for families who cannot afford to send their children to school before kindergarten.

That can leave some children less prepared than others to enter school, says Allison Wilson, an assistant professor in the Early Childhood Education Department and director of the Institute for Early Childhood Education at UM.

In the absence of publicly-funded preschool, Wilson’s vision is that UM’s program and the students who graduate from it with a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree can model the best early childhood education practices for programs throughout Montana.

Open to all Missoula-area children, the LAB Preschool is a learning space for both preschool-age kids and college-level students pursuing an education degree at UM. Early childhood education students embedded in the preschool follow children’s natural curiosity and, with added support and structure, learn to turn that inquisitiveness into a project that both captures kids’ interest and engages them in dynamic learning opportunities.

After Valentine’s Day, one class became curious about sending letters, leading teachers to create a child-size post office with mailboxes, envelopes and stamps. Kids wrote one another letters, charged each other for stamps with play money and sorted mail. The children developed their motor, literacy and mathematics skills all while playing and learning about the world.

“When young children are given the space to be active and engaged with their environment, they grow in confidence,” Dahl Horejsi says. “They also view school as a fun and purposeful experience, and are ready to go on to elementary school with the social skills they picked up here. When they have those pieces, they’re going to be far more prepared.”

UM students benefit from hands-on experience in the LAB Preschool and curriculum tailored to developmentally-appropriate education for the youngest learners, preparing graduates to become experts in their field. Early childhood education graduates leaving UM are attuned to the specific needs of young children – something that both bolsters teacher retention and optimizes the educational experience for young children in classrooms wherever UM graduates teach, Wilson says.

“Students leave with a sustained practice of intentional reflection and flexibility to be responsive to what they know children need in their classroom,” said Wilson. “It’s a disposition and a habit of mind.”

Early childhood education master’s student Olivia Kersey-Bronec is putting this philosophy to work as one of the first two UM graduate students to be chosen as a Borick Scholar.

Founded by entrepreneur Louis Borick, the foundation supports education, youth and leadership development, the arts and animal welfare. The Borick Foundation recently awarded the University of Montana Foundation with a grant to purchase the LAB Preschool’s new playhouse and fund early childhood education graduate students’ research, studies and classroom experience. The scholarship funds Kersey-Bronec’s time as a co-teacher in the LAB Preschool this semester.

“If that wasn’t a reality, I would not be able to do this position, I would have to be making money in other ways,” Kersey-Bronec says of being a Borick Scholar. “Getting to both financially support myself and getting to work in this space toward being a better teacher every day, I’m really grateful for that.”

Previously a chemistry major at the University of Puget Sound, Kersey-Bronec’s enrolled in UM’s program after spending two years with AmeriCorps working as a kindergarten teaching assistant and teaching sustainable agriculture in Montana. Access to the LAB Preschool is instrumental in advancing her career dream, she says.

“These classrooms are beautiful environments for children, they have math and literacy intertwined into everything that kids do,” Kersey-Bronec says. “As a student, I feel like I’ve learned so much having access to these spaces.”

UM’s early childhood classes and firsthand experience in the LAB Preschool are preparing Kersey-Bronec to eventually head her own classroom after her expected graduation date of spring 2024. As a teacher, she plans to continue the ideology that play is learning.

“I think it’s so empowering to be a kid, express your interests and see it’s valued in the classroom,” Kersey-Bronec says. “Students don’t remember what you said, they remember how you made them feel. My goal is to be a teacher who leaves a positive memory, as well as setting kids up for success in their lives and in school.”

Preparing young children for a life of successful education is also the goal of early childhood education for doctoral students and Adjunct Professor Anna Puryear.

Also a Borick Scholar and co-teacher in the LAB Preschool, Puryear already has 22 years of experience working in early childhood and elementary education, as well as a master’s degree in educational leadership from the University of Texas Arlington.

Puryear decided to pursue another degree at UM to dig into a gap she’s perceived between the education of early childhood learners and elementary school children. As young students move past kindergarten, play and social development is often stifled, Puryear says. She plans to focus her dissertation on that gap.

“There is a real disconnect between what we know about how children develop in early childhood and what is happening in elementary schools,” Puryear says. “People forget about how kids are developing at that time. They learn through movement, they learn through play.”

By providing an income and paying her tuition, Puryear says becoming a Borick Scholar allows her to dive into her research head-first in a way she couldn’t otherwise. The support secures her regular time in the LAB Preschool as a co-teacher and affords her time to collaborate with other early childhood professionals.

Puryear hopes her research will support public schools in bridging the divide and emphasizing the importance of placing early childhood educators who emphasize learning through play in kindergarten through third grade classrooms.

“Play is a time where you get to practice what you’re learning with no threat,” Puryear says. “They’re learning how to be people in a place where it’s super safe to just be who they are.”

Puryear expects to graduate in spring 2026. Afterwards, she hopes to work with Wilson on expanding the efforts of UM’s Institute for Early Childhood Education.

In its nascency, the institute is launching an inaugural summit in April in collaboration with local early childhood organizations Zero to Five Missoula County and the Missoula chapter of the Montana Association for the Education of Young Children.

The summit will seek to advance the institute’s larger mission of convening early childhood stakeholders to work together across disciplines and address the needs of young children and families in Montana. The goal is to bring a variety of experts together to respond to those needs through research, workshops and new partnerships, Wilson says.

The summit will be held April 6-8 in the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education during the National Association for the Education of Young Children Week of the Young Child.

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Contacts: Allison Wilson, UM assistant professor of early childhood education and director of the Institute for Early Childhood Education, 406-243-4865, [email protected]; Kristin Dahl Horejsi, Learning and Belonging Preschool director, 406-243-4262, [email protected].

A photo of the LAB Preschool.
Children play and learn in the LAB Preschool.

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