I spent this morning touring the Zurich International School Early Years Campus. It’s in a beautiful setting, located in a 200 year old villa on the shores of the Lake Zurich. The school has seven classrooms of kids aged 3-5, and it’s impressive, not just for its setting, but for the educational attitudes and approaches that were immediately apparent.
I began with a long conversation with Laurel, the director. She quickly made it clear that her school does not focus on building literacy skills and does not have expectations about kids reading by the time they are five. The school emphasizes play-based learning, with lots of arts, time outside, and thematic exploration. The school isn’t hostile to books and reading, of course, and books are a big part of any activity. Staff just don’t believe it’s in a child’s best interest to push reading skills so early. There are children who are reading by age 5, but for those who are not, it’s not a failure.
The school is not centered on technology either. You won’t find kids sitting in front of screens. They do have some Ipads in classrooms and every student has a personal blog, called a Learning Path, that begins when they are young. The blog contains videos of a child presenting and reflecting on their work, photographic examples, and written pieces. This blog becomes a digital portfolio that grows more sophisticated as a student progresses. This portfolio will follow them throughout their years at the school. It can be accessible to family as a way of sharing and discussing kids’ work. Family members can add their own comments and ideas to the blog as well. It’s a wonderful tool for connecting a parent to their child’s learning.
Every teacher is expected to write a classroom blog once a week about what has happened for the class as a whole. I know this is becoming more common in the United States, but it was only three years ago that Heather and I were told that a fifth grade class would only have a newsletter twice a year. That was supposed to be enough to keep us informed.
The school has a wonderful library space as well as a sensory room that is available for a variety of kids. They have a green screen, too, where children can insert themselves into pictures or videos. The school’s walls are filled with color, art work, and examples of what children have created.
Although they have ipads in the classroom, any teacher who wants to include an app for children to use needs to make the case for the app to all the other teachers in the school, demonstrating why this app would enhance student learning. They recognize that technology has a place, but the staff are intentional about what gets included. These discussions also help to bond teachers through learning together.
The children play outside a lot. They climb trees and play with sticks, activities that would be hard to find in most American preschools. There’s a garden, a decent playground, and picnic tables for lunch and snack sharing.
I love how the school includes parents. Twice a year they have a parent week. All parents are welcome in the school from 8-10, no appointment necessary. They shadow their children, and there are two rules. 1. You must turn off your cell phone. 2. You cannot talk to other adults. You can only talk to children. This keeps the focus on kids.
The school also has great stacking blocks, which are constructed so that they hold together in structural ways, allowing for stronger block houses and castles. Teachers swear by these blocks, which come from Latvia. You can see them in the picture above.
The fundamental mission is to nurture caring, inquisitive, reflective human beings. There’s plenty of time to learn to read later, and I’m certain that the reading levels of these students would easily surpass those of their peers by the time they reach upper elementary. But in the meantime, creativity, social skills, and curiosity blosssom.
It’s a happy, family-style preschool of 120 children. I’m looking forward to singing with them tomorrow.