The beginning of the year is a time for creating a sense of community, and your room is the gathering place. Here, all children can feel secure, nurtured and supported by the environment, each other, and YOU. This new group of individuals bring with them divergent interests, abilities, cultures, and families. Each child arrives at your door with a fertile background of experience that enriches your program. By demonstrating your loving acceptance of all children's backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints, you create an environment that says, "All are welcome here." At the same time you are modeling just how you want children to be with one another. The goal is to celebrate individuals while creating a sense of community.
We know from recent studies that children who feel a sense of identity within a group are the most well-adjusted and successful in school. As children progress developmentally, their group interaction skills become more finely tuned as well. Children's "world view" expands to add a greater understanding of the relationship between self and other. Studies also tell us that some of the most important skills children need for school readiness and success are the "people skills" of social interaction, communication, collaboration, and problem solving. They are the fertile ground that supports the academics of learning ABCs and 123s! That is what you are doing in the first month of school — creating an emotionally secure "home base" for children to learn in. So don't worry if you are not teaching many specific academic skills in your first month. By focusing on establishing a safe, secure, and nurturing environment, you are teaching children how to learn and are setting the stage for the entire year.
How can you help a child feel secure in a new community? Let's look at a few elements that allow children to feel known and supported.
Building Community Through Identity
Your children need to see themselves reflected in the classroom. Invite families to send in photos of their children and family before school starts or in the first few weeks. Finding themselves "already there" will go a long way towards making children feel comfortable. Not only will children enjoy finding their photos around the room, but they will delight in learning about their new friends and their families. Children may want to make family books in the first few weeks of school as a way of getting to know each other.
Building Community Through Familiarity
Moving into a new class of children can be very challenging. Children need to find things that are familiar to them in the classroom. It can be something simple, such as puzzles and games they might have played with in a previous classroom. These might be materials that seem too "easy" for them, but in order to build a community, children need to build a sense of comfort - the time to be challenged comes later. And interestingly, children who have a sense of success with a particular educational material or game are more likely to share it with others and thus build community. Don't forget to use familiar and favorite songs and books at group time. Children will feel so proud when they can say, "I know that book!"
Building Community Through Warmth and Beauty
Studies have shown that warm colors and soft spaces are welcoming to children and create a secure and nurturing "nest" from which they can grow. Lots of pillows, soft toys, fresh flowers, soft clay or dough, and items for water play, create a homelike environment. These elements also foster a sense of community. A soft place to share a book with a friend, a small clay table for two, or a beautiful bouquet of flowers to examine together all can create "warm spots" for children to share with a new friend. But perhaps the warmest element of your classroom is you and your SMILE.
Building Community Through Trust
At this stage of development, in order to feel part of their classroom community, children need to feel the same sense of trust in school as they do at home. Your calm acceptance of children's feelings during the transition from home to school goes a long way towards letting children know that it is safe to express their feelings and building their sense of trust in you. Reassure children by making eye contact, listening to what they need to say, and acknowledging their thoughts and feelings. Don't expect children to make friends right away. Children may need to engage in parallel play before they are ready to share and communicate with another child.
Building Community Through Predictability
Predictability is another important part of building an environment of trust and safety. Establishing predictable routines helps children know what to expect and helps them feel confident and capable in the group. Keep a regular schedule of activities throughout the day. If possible, take photographs of each section of the day and place them in a row at child eye level in a left to right sequence from the beginning of the day to the end. If children are wondering "what comes next" or "when do I go home," they can look at the sequence to see how many more activities are left for the day.
Building Community Through Family Involvement
Each child who walks through your door "comes" with a family. The family is a key ingredient to children feeling at home in your classroom. In some programs, you may only meet the families at special meetings or occasions. In others, you will have the pleasure of seeing them every day when they drop off and pick up their children. Make a point of connecting in a variety of ways, from phone calls to letters or notes sent home. If possible, learn their email addresses for instant family communication. They will appreciate your efforts and may reward you with active participation in your program. Invite family members to visit and share their culture, work, and interests. You will be expanding your classroom community to include the greater community of the town where your school resides.
Ultimately, the essential element to creating a sense of community in your classroom is YOU! It is not the number of toys and materials or the size of your space that really counts. It is your loving, compassionate attitude towards the children in your classroom family that creates a joyful community.
For more beginning of the school year activities, see Ellen Booth Church's book, Best-Ever Circle Time Activities: Back to School (Scholastic, Inc., 2003).