School Supplement: Kids learn to solve problems by having fun in the classroom

"Teachers spend all their time trying to control" wriggling preschoolers with "an attention span of 30 seconds," says Rosamond Herling of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's Early Childhood Education Department.

What the worm needs is a bigger apple — an Apple Macintosh Performa, for instance, with a software program titled Kid Pix that teaches preschoolers how to spell.

Forty-two four-year-olds share one of these Apples at the California Street JCC nursery school. It's only one in a bushel full of juicy ideas.

What's been happening at this school during the past year is a program called Emergent Curriculum, though the tykes might not know it.

What they do know is how they're expected to behave.

Children "have to come to the morning meeting to find out what's going on for the rest of the day," Herling stresses.

The program's seven teachers might not have known the schedule themselves till the day before. At the sound of each day's final bell they gather to brainstorm new ideas for the next day's session.

The children often supply the stimulus. If they're talking about Batman, for instance, the teachers "go off on tangents to supply information for the kids" about bats, caves or how covering one's face with a mask ties in with Purim, says Herling, who was educated at Oakland's Mills College.

"One day they had water; they had food color; they had vinegar," notes Herling's colleague Micki Cooley. "The whole idea was to see what happened when you put together various combinations."

The teacher might ask students such questions as, "What would happen if you add blue food coloring to ice?" explains Cooley, director of the JCC's Early Childhood Education Department, or "What would happen if you put ice out in the sun?"

Posing questions to 4-year-olds gives them a chance to start using cognitive skills dealing with cause and effect.

"It's like being a little scientist," she says.

"Basically the concept is allowing children to learn through self-experimenting and discovery, in which the teacher, instead of directing the activity, facilitates thinking and problem-solving," adds Cooley.

"Throwing out the structure" is what Herling calls it, because kids who are wiggly worms won't sit still and listen to a grownup imparting information all day long.

Instead, Emergent Curriculum allows instructors to set up several activity centers both indoors and out that let the kids choose what they want to do for as long as they want to do it.

Drew Rose is a 5-year-old who'd been enrolled in structured programs for two years and didn't like them, says Herling. He hated sitting at specific times, doing what others were doing.

"He either shut down or acted out."

When he entered the JCC's Emergent Curriculum program, Drew was immediately drawn to the computer. He couldn't write because he had trouble using a pencil, Herling says. But the computer's Kid Pix program let him tap out letters on the keyboard. The computer would repeat words back to him.

"He'd spell his dog's name, his daddy's name," says Herling. "Writing and spelling's a pretty good sign for a 5-year-old."

But Herling says Emergent Curriculum isn't meant to push youngsters too far ahead of their appropriate age group in school.

"We don't try to teach them to read," she says. "We teach them problem-solving and how to get along. We're getting them ready for life."

Say, for example, that seven kids all want to use the computer at once. The teacher asks how they might solve the dilemma.

"First you get the complaints: `I was here first.` `He had it all day yesterday.' We point out how that doesn't help, and ask, `How can we go forward?'" explains Herling.

The kids then might suggest the use of a timer or a list, or six might find something else to do, on condition that the child using the computer notify the others when he or she is done. Herling says the teacher only steps in to enforce the rules, to remind the kids that "this is what you said you were going to do."

She adds that at the beginning of the school year, teachers start out more involved in the problem-solving process. "By the end of the year, the teachers are just standing there listening. The kids are following the model. It works phenomenally well."