Head of Preschool and Kindergarten, Christine Allen,  Cultivates a Lifelong Love of Learning in the Earliest Years

For Chris Allen, it is imperative that young children have a positive and nurturing experience from their first moments in the classroom.

For Chris Allen, it is imperative that young children have a positive and nurturing experience from their first moments in the classroom. Preschool is an especially exciting time for both students and their parents, and the beginning of what we hope to be a 13-year journey at Dwight. We sat down with Ms. Allen, Head of our Preschool and Kindergarten, who joined Dwight in 2006, to learn how she nurtures individual strengths to unearth early sparks of genius, and coordinates a supportive community around our littlest learners to propel them into a bright academic future.

What makes Dwight's Preschool and Kindergarten special?

We're very proud of our warm and welcoming community. Our teachers love working with young children and their families and we are a group of passionate educators who come together for a common purpose ― to provide children and their families with an extraordinary early school experience. This experience lays the foundation for all future learning, and the IB curriculum in particular gives students a strong academic base to build on. In Dwight's tradition of personalized learning, we make sure that every student is engaged and we promote a strong sense of self. Our students leave our Riverside Campus as confident learners who are more than ready to take the next big step in their educational career!

What do you like about being an educator in an IB School and at Dwight in particular?

There are so many reasons I love working at an IB school and especially at Dwight. Most importantly, we put students at the center of everything we do. Our inquiry-based approach allows students to be active participants in their education, with their questions driving the curriculum, helping to shape IB themes and units of inquiry. By putting students in the driver's seat, their experiences are meaningful and create connections to the world around them in a tangible way. Dwight early childhood faculty have the opportunity to go beyond the traditional teaching method and provide a well-balanced approach to learning that lasts a lifetime.

We begin the IB Primary Years Program for students at age three. From the very start, they are exposed to concepts, including the IB Learner Profile, which will deepen their understanding of themselves within a broader global context and form a solid foundation that will carry them through the entire IB curriculum: the PYP, which concludes at the end of fifth grade; and into the Middle Years and Diploma Programs that follow.

What innovations were introduced on Riverside Campus recently?

All young children see the world as innovators. They explore, create, and ask questions as a catalyst to engage in the world around them. Innovation, at its most organic state, happens in the younger years. In preschool and kindergarten, we recognize this as one of childhood's greatest gifts, which is why we developed our very own early childhood STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) lab known as The Studio last year. This classroom surrounds our students with recycled materials that become the foundation of projects and the springboard for creative ideas. It's where robots come to life and pendulums are used to paint, while children learn about concepts such as force, weight, and angular momentum. We see how much our students love this maker space and we know that every student benefits from having the freedom to discover and create.

What are some milestones students reach in their early school years?

There are truly so many! Children develop in leaps and bounds throughout their preschool and kindergarten years. They make astonishing discoveries about who they are as social, physical, cognitive, and creative beings. We have the incredible privilege of watching them discover the joys of relationships, the successes of learning a new skill, and the power of language. They embrace each new experience with awe and wonder and enthusiastically look forward to the next one. And they have lots of fun! Whether watching a preschooler work collaboratively with a classmate, or a kindergartner beaming with pride as she learns a new word in Mandarin or figures out a problem for the first time, we are constantly amazed at all they accomplish in these foundational years spent with us.

How does Dwight foster students' early sparks of genius?

Our youngest learners are just beginning to discover who they are ― their interests, their passions, their strengths, and their gifts. We provide them with countless opportunities to explore a wide variety of interests through classroom activities and a range of after-school programs. By exploring, children discover what makes them truly unique, and in that moment a spark of genius is ignited.

Did you always want to be an early childhood educator?

Yes, I always knew that I would choose a profession centered around young children. I have higher education degrees in both education and psychology, and intended to follow my passion either for teaching or my interest in developmental psychology. It was a surprise to no one when I chose teaching. The 13 years I spent as a classroom teacher were fun, challenging, and exceptionally rewarding. I firmly believe that I am a better educational leader because of that experience.

What is your educational philosophy?

My educational philosophy has changed over the years and continues to evolve each day; however, the tenets of my overall philosophy have remained constant.

First, I believe that children should be treated as individuals with their unique abilities and traits respected and cherished. A strength-based approach is the best approach, whether teaching younger or older students. By focusing on a child's strengths, a teacher not only shows respect for the child's individuality, but also strengthens a child's sense of self. With each positive experience a child has, he/she feels more confident and can use that confidence to tackle problems that may have otherwise seemed impossible. Additionally, at the core of my educational beliefs is the idea that "play is work" for young children. A large portion of a preschooler's day should be spent at play. Young children thrive in an environment that allows them to explore a variety of materials, to interact with others, and to feel safe and valued.

Second, I believe that teachers play a crucial role in providing the best classroom environment for young children. Teachers who are well educated in early childhood development and teaching methodologies will be able to offer an enriching program for young children. As teachers, we have the ability to set the tone of the class and have an effect on each child's well-being. It is imperative that we facilitate an environment that fosters a healthy sense of self, a love of learning, and an enthusiasm to participate actively. The adults in young children's lives have an incredible responsibility to serve as positive role models. Children often learn more from what we do than from what we say.

Third, I believe that all of the people involved in a child's life have an influence on how well he or she will be able to experience the learning environment. The education of young children should be viewed as a partnership between families and school — a partnership that is crucial in providing an enriching and authentic learning environment. Parents should be given opportunities and encouraged to participate in the program with their child. It is together with families that teachers are able to provide a well-rounded and meaningful learning experience.

Finally, I believe that the early years set a foundation for all future learning. A child should leave this period in school with a positive outlook about the adventures and challenges that lie ahead. I have found that many of the experiences of the very early years will not be recalled with concrete memories, but rather with emotional ones. We want children to remember their early learning experiences with positive feelings: they were loved, they were taken care of, they were trusted and were able to trust others, they forged relationships, and they are excited about their future adventures in learning.

What is your spark of genius?

I believe that I have a few sparks of genius (as we all do!), but the one I am most proud of is public speaking ― presenting to a live audience. I thoroughly enjoy hosting our parent seminar series for the community as well as presenting to families new to our School at our open houses.

What is a little-known fact about you?

A fun fact about me that is little known is that I am distantly related to Walt Disney! My great-great-grandfather and Walt's grandfather were cousins.

With Disney family ties, perhaps it was pre-destined that Chris would be working with young children. And we're all grateful that she is!

Photo credit: Mike Sheehan

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