Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Preschool Lab: A Look Back Over the Summer

Lots of ocean books

Today, I want to take a look back over my summer of Preschool Labs and share how the program typically runs and what I've learned from offering it every week.

I started doing Preschool Lab this past fall as part of our Preschool Explorers program. During the school year, we rotate Preschool Explorers between Preschool Lab (science), Wee Dance (music & movement), and more traditional Preschool Storytime. We did this because we had so many great ideas for preschool programs and not enough time in our calendar to offer them all! This way, we have something each week for ages 3-5 and we each get a chance to offer our special programs.

This summer, our library did the Fizz Boom Read collaborative Summer Reading Program and I took on doing a Preschool Lab each week. Since this is a fairly new program for me (I had done six total, I think, before summer), this was definitely a challenge, but a fun challenge! As the summer went on, I definitely found my groove.

Comet toss!

Here are the themes I did this summer:

Week 1: My Body
Week 2: Ocean Animals
Week 3: Dinosaurs
Week 4: Five Senses
Week 5: Colors
Week 6: Sound
Week 7: Birds
Week 8: Space

For Preschool Lab, I typically start with a 20-25 minute storytime about whatever our theme is for the day. I try to include a nonfiction book or a book with real pictures. Then, after we sing our closing song, I briefly explain our stations and give families time to explore. I like to have at least three stations and I've had as many as five or six stations, depending on what I can pull together. Typically my families spend about 15-20 minutes exploring the stations, depending on what captures the kids' interest.

What worked for me as far as planning was to outline the programs in the spring, before we got into the crush of the summer months. I jotted down station ideas (very often inspired by Pinterest) and book titles for each week and I started the take-home packets ahead of time (a book list and ideas for activities families can do at home). I kept track of supplies I needed to purchase and any props/activities I would need to construct. Then as each week approached, I would pull the books I wanted to use and finalize my stations. I definitely used a combination of early planning and week-to-week planning throughout the summer.

Exploring "bird beaks"

Here are some things I learned through doing Preschool Lab this summer:

The Storytime Portion: Don't Overthink It!

My storytime portion of the program doesn't need to be any different than a typical storytime, except I maybe make it a bit shorter. I like to include a nonfiction book, but I don't feel like I have to share ALL nonfiction books. Kids love stories. Go with what engages the kids. Don't be afraid to read parts of books or to talk about photos or pictures without actually reading the text. You're modeling for parents that this is okay! And don't forget to include some interactive elements - action songs, fingerplays, etc.

Signs/Instructions for the Stations

I didn't need signs for the stations. Throughout the school year, I had been putting up signs with instructions for each table. A brief spoken intro to the stations suits us just fine and is less work than creating the signs (which no one was reading, anyway!). If a station needs more instruction, I will demonstrate to the group or make sure I head to that station after storytime so I can explain. During the stations portion of the program, I'm circling so I have opportunity to guide kids and families if they need it. Most are just fine with exploring on their own.

Taste felt board borrowed from Toddler Time

Keep the Stations Simple!

Some of the most popular stations have been the cheapest and easiest to create. I no longer feel like I have to invest a month of creating props and special things to make the stations fun. The kids have lots of fun just adding and removing felt pieces from the board. They spent 20 minutes pouring beans from one container to another. There's no need to overthink the stations, either. And don't reinvent the wheel: if you've done a science program previously, see what you can reuse for a station.

Beware Make & Take Stations

Kids don't need to take something home with them. Learning is in the process (not the product) anyway. After running out of supplies for a craft station early in the summer, I stayed away from stations with usable supplies and focused more on experiential stations. I did still did a few simple make-and-take crafts, but I made sure they were cheap and very easy to grab more supplies if needed.

Make Use of Your Volunteers

If your library is like my library, we're always looking for simple tasks for our dedicated volunteers. I have had volunteers prep craft supplies, cut out felt pieces for the sticky table, etc. Plan ahead and make use of that free help!

Stegosaurus Counting Game

Encourage Parents to Talk, But Understand They May Be Juggling

Our station time is a great time for parents to engage with their kids and talk about all the concepts we're learning. As much as I wish this program was all about one-on-one exploring with a preschooler and a parent, that's not always the reality. Many of my parents are juggling multiple kids, so I help out as much as I can by engaging the preschool kids in conversation as they go through the stations. I try to use new vocabulary words we heard and ask lots of questions. This is good for the kids, but it's also modeling for parents who may not be sure how to talk about science concepts with their kids. (Hint: there's no "right" way to do it - just talk, talk, talk! And ask open-ended questions to get kids talking, too!)

Take-Home Packets: More Work Than They're Worth

I'm not going to bother with take-home packets anymore. During the school year, I was putting together a take-home craft packet and including other ideas and activities to continue the learning at home. This summer, I removed the craft since our Summer Reading Club prize was a science activity pack. I still put together take-home packets with a book list, ideas for activities at home, and printables for practicing writing, etc. Less than half of my packets were taken each week and I feel like it was a waste of time and paper. No one missed the craft. I feel like no one will miss the packets. When we go back to Preschool Explorers this school year, we'll forgo the take-home packets.

We will, however, always have a book display! That's a great way to encourage families to continue the learning at home.

All in all, I feel like my Preschool Labs were really successful and fun. I had great feedback from parents who liked that we offered something a little different for preschoolers this summer. I think kids and parents alike appreciated the self-directed, interactive activities after sitting down for a storytime. This is something we're going to incorporate into every Preschool Explorer program this fall.

I also built my confidence in planning and offering preschool science programs. As the summer went on, each program was a bit easier to conceptualize and implement. Now I'm looking forward to offering Preschool Lab monthly during the school year and already considering a monthly Preschool Lab program for next summer!

Do you offer preschool science programs? What have you learned? What have been your favorite topics?