Preschoolers are not Pilgrims and Indians!

Teacher: “Who wants to be a pilgrim?”
All 3-year-olds in class: “I do!”
Teacher: “Who wants to be an Indian?”
All 3-year-olds in class: “I do!”
One curious 3-year-old asks, “Teacher, what is a pilgrim?”

Every year as the leaves turn red, yellow and orange, it is tradition that the pictures of pilgrims appear on many child care center walls. I often find myself asking the same question the curious 3-year-old did, ”What’s a pilgrim?” or more importantly, “Why are 3-year-olds learning about pilgrims?”

This year, I decided to ask the teachers. One teacher answered, “So they will be ready for kindergarten.” Another teacher announced, “Learning about pilgrims helps them to understand Thanksgiving.” A third well-intentioned teacher explained, “Three-year-olds need to know their heritage.”

Upon answering the “Why” behind the “What” they are doing, I pushed these teachers to support their reasons with what they know about developmentally appropriate practices. The teachers had to agree that their understanding of how children learn did not support their practice of teaching about pilgrims and Indians, but it was just what they always had done. I then asked them to identify which of Ohio’s Early Learning Content Standards were being addressed and in unison they replied, “The history standard.”

The following are excerpts from Ohio’s Early Learning Content Standards for Early Childhood (located on the Ohio Department of Education’s Web site). I wonder if you are as surprised as these teachers to find out what is expected at the END of preschool?

Early Learning (3 – 5 year old) History
What this means: Understanding of people and events that influenced behavior.

• Begin to use the language of time (e.g., day, night, yesterday, today, and tomorrow).
• Label days by function (e.g., school day, stay home day, swim day, field trip day).
• Begin to use or respond to the language of time such as next, before, soon, after.
• Share episodes of personal history from birth to present.
• Arrange sequences of personal and shared events through pictures, growth charts, or other media.
• Share personal family stories and traditions

The 3-year-old asked the teacher a very valid question, and developmentally speaking, he can only really grasp what happened yesterday, and only cares about what is happening in his own personal family as far as his heritage is concerned. These are the histories we should be exploring in a preschool setting. Children are not expected until second grade to recognize the importance of social and political figures like George Washington, Tecumseh or Harriet Tubman, and not until third grade are children expected to measure time in centuries. If we reflect on the real reason we want to celebrate Thanksgiving with the children in our care, isn’t it more about friendship, family, and sharing a meal together?

Next year, instead of paper bag vests and tricorne hats, consider celebrating a child’s family by having them bring in pictures of important people in their family. Allow your child to choose the picture(s) she wants to share. It will be more meaningful if she could talk about the person in the picture. Talk about the custom of sharing a family meal together at this time of year, discussing that your classroom is like a family that shares and cares for each other. A culminating activity could be a classroom family meal, with age appropriate favorite foods like turkey lunchmeat, dinner rolls and carrot sticks. Consider inviting extended family to this classroom family meal to celebrate the heritage that is personal to all the children. I promise you will be less frustrated with children who have disputes over which costume they want to dress up in – the Indian or the pilgrim. They’ll be too busy being themselves!