Apple Trees in the Inner City: The Roots of Playroom Prep
During the early 1960’s, I taught first grade in a Chicago inner city school. When I began to teach the children how to print letters and numbers, I realized some were not ready: they did not hold their writing tool properly and they just wanted to scribble since they could not draw lines. It was one of my first challenges as a teacher – I had to take a step back from my lesson plan and first teach the most basic skills.
I found myself repeating the phrase “top to bottom-left to right” over and over again. I realized such a basic skill is not innate; it must be practiced repeatedly to set up for reading and writing success. But just drawing lines across the page was boring for them – I had to find something to hold their attention, so I drew an apple tree on the left side of paper and a basket on the right side. The child drew lines from the apples to the basket: top to bottom - left to right. They enjoyed the new activity, began to focus and soon began to hold their crayon properly with practice. But a key was repetition, which takes a lot of paper, and remember this was the inner-city with tight budgets and limited paper; I needed an even more creative solution.
I turned to a friend who worked in a local hospital’s x-ray lab and asked her to save old x-ray sheets. She’d bring me a stack and I would scrub to try and clear the picture from the film, leaving a somewhat transparent plastic. By overlaying this on the worksheets, I had a non-consumable activity. If only lamination or dry-erase children’s books were available! The plan worked and soon kids were able to build off of their new basic skills to springboard into more advanced and age-appropriate learning activities.
I loved my time teaching and chose to continue when I became a mom to two daughters. I worked with them in the same way as my students by making fun games to develop their fine motor, pre-reading, pre-writing and preschool skills. Our quality time was spent not only reading books and coloring, but also practicing the “apple tree” activity, which helped us bond as child and parent with a fun learning experience.
After retiring from full-time teaching, I began substituting in a special needs preschool. The teacher would leave worksheets for me to do with the children, often writing letters and numbers, but again, most children were not ready for these worksheets. I tried to guide their hands tracing the number “4,” but they were not focused since number four meant nothing to them. I checked online for pre-writing activities, but most pages were either too busy, not spending enough time on individual letters and sounds, or were simply boring in basic black and white. It was back to the apple tree! With one-on-one encouragement and direction, there was a noticeable shift in enthusiasm - they at least wanted to try. If you’ve ever worked with special needs children, you understand how exciting and fulfilling this was for me.
Now I am blessed with grandchildren! I had the same goals for my grandchildren as I had for my students in the inner city over 50 years ago: for all children to show up knowing how to hold their writing tools properly and understanding “top to bottom- left to right.” I visited many bookstores to see what was available for pre-writing skills, but again, most activity books devoted just a page or two to develop these critical skills… so I was back to drawing apple trees.
Since my daughter, Roz had two young children she read many articles about early learning. We both were amazed at the extensive research being done on this subject, particularly during President Obama’s Pre-K for All initiative. It was clear everyone benefits from children being nurtured in preschool and there are specific ways to best teach them at an early age. The only problem with the research was people weren’t doing enough with the findings - the conclusions weren’t getting into homes. There were plenty of frameworks but not enough tools, so kids were still showing up at school unprepared without their basic skills. Roz asked me what she thought we could do to help solve this problem. “They have to work on the apple tree with a parent or caregiver before the get to the classroom as a complement to preschool.” Thus, Playroom Prep was conceived!
When developing Playroom Prep, we wanted the pages to be colorful with appealing illustrations to give a sense of fun. We didn’t want an academic black and white feeling since worksheets feel like, well, work. Brightly colored scenes have arrows to show where the child should begin to trace the dotted line and how to move in the appropriate direction. Pre-writing is just one component. There are five lessons, each with a specific letter theme. Children are encouraged not only to know the letter name, but more important, the letter’s phonetic sound. Then several illustrations beginning with that sound encourage dialogue between child and instructor to prepare for important reading comprehension skills. “What color is the balloon?” “Did you ever have a balloon?” “What do you think will happen to the balloon?” Also included in each lesson is a colorful geometric shape. Kids love shapes and colors, and tracing the shapes is great line practice. And - the lessons are printed on sturdy, reusable dry-erase pages so parents don’t need to borrow x-ray film.
I’ve been so lucky to have a lifetime of experiences teaching kids from all different backgrounds and aptitude levels. Something I can’t stress enough is the importance of one-on-one attention. Sitting down with a child calms them, helps them focus and lets them relax in preparation for learning. The beauty of this is when we make learning personal and fun, it doesn’t feel like work to them. I think it is possibly the most important step we can take to help prepare our children for not only apple trees, but also a long journey of fun learning experiences of their own.