Play-based curriculum helps kindergartners become problem solvers

Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Elliot Chitwood, right, a pre-kindergarten student at Bonduel Elementary School, hands out a McDonald’s order to Noah Wright as Audrey Moeller waits to come up to the drive-thru window. Pre-kindergarten students are currently learning about restaurants as part of the Tools of the Mind curriculum.

There are plenty of letters and numbers in the kindergarten classrooms at Bonduel Elementary School.

There are also pirate ships.

These are not from pictures in a storybook, but actual reproductions of pirate ships. One even has a flag with the skull and crossbones.

In a pre-kindergarten classroom, there’s a McDonald’s drive-thru, a Starbucks counter and other places where you would normally get stuff to eat and drink.

These settings do more than give students a chance to play. They also provide opportunities to learn.

Bonduel recently adopted the Tools of the Mind curriculum for its kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classrooms. The curriculum is based on the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who believed that play was the best medium to incorporate learning for young minds and help them become critical thinkers.

The curriculum was adopted in 2017 by the nearby Gillett School District, and Gillett staff helped Bonduel teachers to learn methods necessary.

“It’s really great for teaching self-regulation with the students,” said Heidi Cynor, one of the pre-kindergarten teachers. “There is a lot of play-based learning, which we find the kids really need.”

Tools of the Mind operates under the philosophy that it takes more than a teacher teaching students how to read, write their letters and numbers and do basic math.

“There’s research out there that kids learn so much more with hands-on and tactile, and this program really encompasses a lot of that,” said Corinne Salerno, who teaches kindergarten.

Salerno said there’s usually a week of background building with learning units, where the classrooms build the props. With the pirate unit, the students are building the ship, making eyes patches and pirate hats, creating an island hideout and more.

“There are five ebooks (on the units) online, and they teach to the new (state) science and social studies standards,” Salerno said. “There’s a lot of vocabulary and then they do some writing about something that they’ve learned.”

Kindergarten teacher Jenny Kray said that, while the previous teaching methods were effective in promoting learning through their “strong, structured” styles, Tools of the Mind allows learning to be more child-centered instead of teacher-directed, focusing on the standards first.

“A lot of the knowledge that they’re getting, they’re carrying over on their own,” Kray said. “They have their own free choice, and they’re doing some writing. Some of the students have gone home and told their parents they want to go to ancient Egypt.”

Cyron said the restaurant theme in her classroom is a little more basic than what the kindergarten students are learning.

“They can do things like sorting the food by type and color, sorting out all the vegetables,” Cyron said. “They can do math where they have to take the orders, and they’re practicing great social skills where they might have been working on their own on something with the curriculum, but now they have to work on their math with a friend.”

Sara Hyska, who teaches pre-kindergarten, said Tools of the Mind helps to bring literacy and math to the whole classroom. Before, teachers would have literacy in certain stations around the classroom and math in other stations, but now the way students are learning are in areas where both subjects meld.

“There’s math in every single spot, and there’s literacy in every single spot,” Hyska said. “They have buddies to check their work, so the self-regulation’s built into that. They have to listen to what their buddy says and remember that.”

The teachers all noted marked improvement in behavioral issues. Instead of having to constantly tell a student whose attention is wandering to focus or get a student who is misbehaving to stop, the students are regulating themselves.

They all sang the praises of Tools of the Mind, noting that there is constant teacher training and evaluation. Salerno said the trainers constantly do class visits and gives pointers to the teachers if they have any questions.

“Gillett has been a constant resource for us,” Salerno said.

Kray said she believes the way they’re learning in the kindergarten and pre-kindergarten will allow them to work independently.

“We think the positive behavior will carry over into other grades,” Kray said.

School principal Brad Grayvold believes learning via the Tools of the Mind concept goes beyond the basics and provides his school’s youngest students with the ability to comprehend some of the more complex things going on outside of the classroom.

“The children come out with a broad base content knowledge, and they’re really building that on a daily basis, where their knowledge of the outside world is at a much higher level,” Grayvold said.