Head Start Program Uses Environmental Approach to Early Learning

For most preschool students, art class involves fingerpaints and construction paper. But for students at a Chicago Commons Head Start program on the South Side, a different approach to learning means art projects are made up of anything from old cereal boxes and soda bottles to pine cones and rocks.

It's playtime, but not your typical playground at a Head Start program at the Paulo Freire Family Center in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

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Swings and jungle gyms are replaced by wooden tree stumps, plastic rings and magnifying glasses.

“It's a subtle way of learning that science, art and math are all interconnected, and they don't learn them in separate isolation, that they all play together,” said Chicago Commons Executive Director Betsy Altman.

Watch an extended interview with Altman about how the organization uses the Reggio Emilia approach in three Chicago neighborhoods:



The children are learning under the Reggio Emilia approach, founded in Italy and encouraging creativity for learning. The environment is considered the kids' third teacher -- after parents, and of course classroom teachers.

Chicago Commons, which runs the center along with three other early learning facilities, became one of the first to use this approach to educate children from low-income families.

Jazmin Nava lives nearby and has sent all four of her children to preschool here.

“They're doing amazing. Each of the kids are learning different, but they’re doing great,” said Nava. “One of the important things is because they start early.”

Nava says she especially appreciates the values the children learn -- much like those she would teach at home -- especially considering her neighborhood is known for violence.

“I don't feel safe. Even in my own backyard, I can't let them go out and play,” said Nava. “This place helps me because I know that they’re teaching the kids good morals and good values, and when they go out in the street they already know the good things they have to do and the bad things.”

Educators say that outdoor exploration extends to the nature room where, with lots of plants and occasional soft music, children are inspired to paint or learn about quiet time, as much as active time.

And at story time, preschoolers are acting out the story.

Education researcher Julie Spielberger explains that one component of the Reggio approach is giving students other avenues to express themselves.

“That is such an important link for young children as they are beginning to think about reading and writing, so being able to express and understand that, whether their actions, or writing or reading, are symbols for things, for ideas in the world,” she said.

That was the case for one student at Paulo Freire, who teachers say wasn't very verbal.

Arts studio coordinator Jesus Oviedo says it turns out that student had a special interest.

“He started with a block and started building castles, and then he would create castles,” said Oviedo. “He would make drawings, he would research castles on the internet. He started using a lot of language, and started using words like moat and drawbridge, words that are fairly sophisticated for a 4-year-old child.”

“Teachers are here to scaffold children, provide guidance and support,” said Child Development Program Director Janice Woods.

She says the approach is certain to prepare students for kindergarten.

Across all four Chicago Commons early learning locations, testing shows 82 percent of students tested are ready for kindergarten in language, 85 percent in literacy, and 86 percent in cognitive skills.

And research says there could be more long-term effects of a high-quality preschool.

“The actual test scores that often used when we’re evaluating programs may not show these differences, but if you look at other indicators: attendance, behavior, assignment to special ed, we do see some differences,” said Spielberger.

Differences that Nava hopes will inspire her children for years after they've left the center.

“They focus more on what can we do to make you a better person,” she said.

Educators at Chicago Commons say on average their students score 60 to 80 points above what's considered passing -- or ready for kindergarten -- on the state's readiness tests in areas like social and emotional skills  or physical skills, as well as literacy, math and cognitive.

Chicago Commons operates two other early learning centers in Humboldt Park and one in the Pilsen neighborhood. All of them are Head Start programs but have various sources of funding. For example, the Reggio approach at the Guadalupano Family Center in Pilsen is funded by the board.

For more information on the other locations, click here.

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