Engaging Preschoolers

By Zach Mural

“Daddy, you be Simba, and I’ll be Nala,” says my almost 4-year-old daughter as I try for what feels like the hundredth time to get her to take a bite of her oatmeal. “OK, I’ll be Simba, but please come have a bite.” She interrupts, “But, Simba, but Simba, there are hyenas in the Pride Lands!”

If you either have a preschool-age child or have worked with them, this exchange likely sounds familiar. Whether the characters are from The Lion King, The Cat in the Hat, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, or any number of other popular children’s books or programs, playing a pretend role is a mainstay in interacting with young children. While these interactions may at times be a barrier to certain goals, like getting a child to eat, go out the door, or engage in a particular activity, they also provide an amazing glimpse into the mind of the child.

Getting To Know Them
Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research,” and for me—both as a parent and youth-development professional—he could not be more correct. My goal for this month’s column is to remind the reader of this basic truth, and to add some perspective about what this seemingly simple revelation means for those of us who provide programs for preschool-age children.

Beyond the sheer fun of getting to see the amazingly innocent and at times magical world that exists in the mind of a child, engaging in child-directed pretend play helps adults understand the young person’s hopes, fears, and interests. It’s remarkable what you can learn about a child’s home life, likes and dislikes, and how they might benefit the most from your program just by playing, for even a few minutes.

You’re Outnumbered
The inherent problem with learning about each of these younger participants is that you’ll likely find they vary wildly in interests, skills, and even an ability to communicate or regulate their behavior. For example, Johnny has boundless energy, wants to be a fireman, a police officer, or an astronaut, but is difficult to understand, and he absolutely refuses to sit down. Sam, on the other hand, is quiet and reserved. He likes to color and has the vocabulary of a 10-year-old. And then there are the five other 3- and 4-year-olds who have just come into your little dance studio with a vast assortment of interests and varying abilities to communicate and follow directions (even for adults, self-control is a limited resource). And your job is teach them a little about ballet, tap, and hip-hop dancing in seven half-hour sessions for which parents have shelled out their hard-earned money.

So, where do you start, and how and why would you spend even a few minutes playing with each child to try to get to know them? The answer is relatively simple. You start by playing so you can learn about them (back to that in a minute), and just as importantly they can learn about you and the program. How you set the tone matters in any activity, but it is especially true when working with preschoolers. By giving children a few minutes to play (their way), you show that you value them and what they bring to the program. That is not to say you let them run the show, or you don’t set barriers/rules. In fact, the best youth instructors can quickly assess their participants, and then through play, create order from chaos by organizing a game or activity that builds off the imagination and momentum generated by the kids.

So How Does That Work?
At this point, you might think you have a better chance of herding cats. While what I’m advocating might seem like it is inviting disorder, it’s really the fastest way to get everyone on the same track. After only a few minutes of circulating, you’ll have a sense of the leaders, the movers, and the thinkers. You’ll know who is scared or anxious, who has a friend in the room, and which child might have the most skill or experience. With this information, you can step into the game (asserting some but not total control), involve those who are sitting on the periphery, comfort the concerned, harness the energy of the movers, and get the leaders engaged in developing skills associated with your program.

Think about the dance class with Johnny, Sam, and their five friends. After a few minutes, a skilled youth leader will pick up on the momentum of a game of pretend Frozen and involve Sam by asking if he’s seen the movie, and if so, who his favorite character is. Then Johnny can be asked to help distribute the snowflakes (aka rubber circles for the children to stand on), while encouraging the other children to stand on their circles. The leader then shows everyone how the snowflakes (that Elsa created, of course) do their magical snow dance from the cloud to the sky, and begins a basic stretching routine. And, like that, seven children are engaged, excited, and participating in something that will easily transition to the remaining “dance lesson.”

Remember What Really Matters!
Regardless of whether you are teaching dance, art, swimming, or any number of other activities, it is critically important to remember what matters the most to each and every child who walks through your door: that they feel safe, included, and have fun! Yes, parents want you to teach the skills related to a specific activity that they (or ideally the child) have chosen. But the reality is that what the child takes away from your program, more than any specific set of skills, is a sense of being part of a group, having fun with new friends and a new caring adult, and being above all else a good person. Believe it or not, if you can teach that last lesson to each child in your programs, then you and your staff really will be making the world a happier and better place for everyone!

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit Youthdevelopmentconsulting.com.