by Erikah Haavie, Contributing Writer
“How do trees drink out of their roots?” “Where does tree sap come from?” “Why do squirrels live in trees?”
They may not even be in first grade yet, but a group of 3- to 6-year-olds in a new Furman summer school program spent four weeks in July and August asking tough questions — and getting answers.
The Furman Experience at First Baptist Kindergarten (FBCK) is a partnership started this year between Furman University’s Graduate Studies program and First Baptist Church of Greenville. The four-week summer experience was the final part of the practicum for the Master of Arts program with concentration in Early Childhood Education.
Furman educators had been looking for a way to offer the Early Childhood Education practicum course (EDEC-960) in a centralized location and were impressed with the Reggio Approach, a non-religious educational philosophy originating in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and used at FBCK during its school year. After approaching First Baptist administrators, Furman and the kindergarten were able to develop a summer program that would offer 24 FBCK children a month of enrichment while providing a new curriculum and learning experience for seven Furman students.
“We’re excited to partner with Furman,” said Kathy Stewart, director of education practice at First Baptist Church Kindergarten. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to work with students.”
“The Furman Experience” uses a specialized project-based approach to learning, where children are encouraged to examine topics through investigation and research. At the same time, teachers support children in constructing their own knowledge, helping them to discover and share what they’re learning, said Gina Varat, Furman’s adjunct instructor who oversaw the program on-site.
Instead of just telling students the answers to their questions, teachers respond with additional questions, such as “What do you think?” and “Let’s find out,” Varat said.
This year, the church facilities and grounds served as the inspiration for child-directed projects studying trees, offices and stained glass windows. The final week included a visit with parents to see the results of students’ hard work.
For 5-year-old Miles, it meant telling about the bird feeders, leaf prints and art projects she created. “I’m very happy to show my mom all the things I made,” she said.
The hands-on approach builds children’s confidence as they learn and teach others. “They’re excited to learn and come to school,” said First Baptist program liaison Meg Holcombe. “Children are ready to share their ideas and experiences.”
The approach also fosters advanced oral language skills, student motivation and achievement in young children, said Lorraine DeJong, coordinator for Furman’s Early Childhood Program.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Anna Barnett of Greenville, whose son, Gray, attended the program. “It fits with Gray’s interests.” She said she hopes the program will be offered in future years so that her daughter will also be able to participate.
“We hope Furman students will walk away feeling more competent implementing state standards within the context of child-centered approaches to curriculum and instruction,” DeJong said. “Ultimately, we hope they will use and be stronger advocates for these models in their future classrooms.”