I'm sitting on a tiny blue plastic chair with my knees wedged under a very short table. My hands rest on my lap to stop any fidgeting while I wait for the midmorning snack of crackers, juice, and vanilla yogurt. The room smells of crayons, white paste glue, and kids.
Since this book is all about kids, I wanted to start by being a kid myself, if only for a few hours. I hoped to recall what life was like before I had to make a living for myself. I wanted a starting point for looking at kids in my own culture, not as a parent but from their perspective: What does it feel like to be a child in Western culture? What is the day like? How do they see the world? What's new since I was young? And so I've come to the Community Preschool at St. John's in Summit, New Jersey, to feel once again what it means to be a child.
The Community Preschool at St. John's is designed for three- and four-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. Director Susan Childs Merrick explains what makes a preschool different from day care: "We have a plan, and goals, and it's not just all unstructured play." The program is designed as a nurturing place where kids can express their creative skills and learn to be "confident, independent learners," as their school's brochure explains. This preschool offers early exposure to the structure of classroom, to the relationship between teachers and students, and how to get along in groups and to share. For many of the kids, Spanish is their primary language at home, and so preschool at St. John's is also designed to hone their English language ability before they enter kindergarten. And most of all, this place is just plain fun.
The hallway is lined with coat hooks placed three feet off the ground and a photograph of each kid hangs by bright yarn from the hooks, so that each child can easily identify where to hang his or her coat. There are two classrooms: one for the three-year-olds and one for the four-year-olds. You can tell which is which by the artwork on the walls—while handprints line the walls in the three-year-olds' room, more complex tissue paper wreaths, a skill of slightly older kids, adorn the classroom of the four-year-olds. Both classrooms are filled with supplies: Play-Doh and crayons, paints and paper, blocks of every shape and size. Everything is neatly stacked and labeled by the teachers, a lesson in order and place that distinguishes a classroom from a playroom.
I begin my morning with the four-year-olds. Clearly, they think it's pretty strange that an adult who is not a teacher is here to watch. At first, they glance at me out of the corners of their eyes as they file in, shifting their gazes quickly back to the teachers. Teachers, in this preschool context, are not just authority figures, they are clearly trusted confidantes. Some kids skirt around me, some come up and ask my name, and a few quietly ask their teacher who I am. When teacher Molly Little tells them it's okay, then it's okay.
After an hour, none of the kids really care about me anymore, because they are busy, so terribly busy, as only kids can be. The morning starts with an hour of free play. If I were to choose, I'd go for the table spread with pinecones and leaves and take up the giant magnifying glass and check out everything at high power. But these kids know more of what the room has to offer. Three girls in the back of the room don aprons and set a table with plates and silverware and plastic food. A few girls and boys play with the wooden trains, making sure to add in the requisite vrroom noises at the right moments.
Soon all the kids are organized to follow Mrs. Little's lesson plan. They can make holiday wrapping paper or listen to a story. Later everybody has a snack and some rest time. At the end of the morning, they will head for the playground, where they will run around before their parents come to pick them up.
In the other classroom, the three-year-olds sit at tables full of puzzles and blocks, or pull on a red plastic full-body smock and paint at an easel. Their teacher, Alexis Staats, conducts a running conversation among these kids, questioning and answering, attending to the needs of each one. Along with her aide, Dina, she chats about their artistic creations or about the upcoming party. She tries to engage a boy who is running around the room. She seemingly has endless patience, as well as the ability to hone in exclusively on a single child a few moments before turning to another, like a good mother with brood of children who happen to all be the same age. I have a snack with the kids in this room too, which even the three-year-olds know is cheating since I already had one across the hall.
After a while, I settle down and take a deeper look at my surroundings, how it looks and how it feels. To my surprise, the whole experience begins to feel eerily familiar, as if cutting out a paper figure with blunt scissors or lying down on the floor with a blanket for a morning rest were part of my life only weeks ago. I am comfortable with the sense of a plan, the expectation that we would do this or that at such and such a time, that someone would lead and I would follow. More interesting, I find familiarity in the interactions among the kids: The interpersonal machinations it takes to socialize at four, I have to admit, don't seem all that different than socializing at forty. Three little girls sitting at the table painting and chatting could have been me and two friends at a bar—they too were gossiping about the behavior of another friend. Two younger kids negotiating a set of blocks remind me of adults sharing an office space or working on a memo together. I feel at home, even if the furniture doesn't fit.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Kids by Meredith Small. Copyright © 2001 by Meredith F. Small. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.