“How is a preschool for gifted children different from typical preschool?” is the question most commonly asked by parents of very young gifted children who are searching for a program to meet their child’s needs. They can generally imagine how a school for gifted elementary students would work — students would not need to wait for classmates to catch up with their reading level, for example, or would be able to learn more advanced math or science topics more quickly.
However, they often cannot imagine what preschool “looks like” for gifted children; after all, they’re only three and four years old — how much academics can they actually do when they’re that little?
Playing with their favorite toys: their minds
It’s a fair question — after all, most of us have vague but fond memories of preschool that involve crayons and paste, books and bulletin boards, having your turn to be line leader or teacher’s helper, etc. Despite all the hours that preschool teachers put into making our experiences rich and engaging, adults don’t usually recall having done a lot of “academic” activity at ages three or four — they generally remember the excitement of being at school for the first time, making friends, and playing.
They’re not wrong: most preschools are, in fact, play-based environments, since there is voluminous research about the developmental necessity of play for the minds of young children. As we know, however, the kinds of play that gifted minds like the most may look very different from that of their peers.
Some of them already read at age three, or love numbers more than anything, or have memorized the periodic table just because it makes some part of their brain happy. Sometimes their giftedness is less academic in flavor, but still obvious: a three-year-old who consistently speaks in complex sentences or whose questions about the world are surprisingly astute or insightful may also clearly be ready for more learning than a typical preschool would offer.
Still, though, parents ask: I already know my child is very different from other children their age, and needs something different. But how different do programs developed for gifted preschoolers look from more typical programs?
How can you make preschool feel “gifted”?
A gifted preschooler’s world is bigger
We can use one concrete example — a specific piece of curriculum shared by schools everywhere — to see how giftedness in very young children can be addressed: at the beginning of the school year, the teacher builds a sense of community in the students so they feel connected to one another and to the new environment of their classroom. In a typical preschool class, the teacher might use The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn to show students that everyone feels a little nervous about being away from their parents when they start school.
In a gifted preschool classroom, the teacher might choose a different book to allow for a more nuanced understanding of community. Amanda Salus, for example, a Pre-K teacher at The Grayson School, chose Our Class Is A Family by Shannon Olsen for the first week of school this year, and embarked on a very different kind of discussion.
Before we even get into the conversation that followed, it’s important to note that the book itself describes a figurative situation: the students in the room are not a literal family, of course, but they can feel connected to one another the way people in a family do. That is an extra layer of abstract thinking that typical preschool students would likely not engage with, but Salus says she sees “light bulb moments” across the room when she offers her students juicy material to dig into that offers extra layers of complexity.
Preschool students everywhere can (and do) talk about their families — the first words they acquire are usually “mama” or “dada,” after all. But in a gifted preschool classroom, the “family” conversation looks different. Salus’s students do not list just their parents and siblings and pets (who are almost always included as equal members of the family), but also go on to talk about grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles, which is a larger and more complex understanding of the word “family” than the nuclear family most typical children describe.
They also provide more detail — sometimes much more — than typical children do: “Some of these extended family members live in other states, and other countries,” she continues. “Next thing you know, we’re talking about where California is and where Germany is.”
It comes down to this: their world is already bigger than that of their age-peers. It has more people in it, and more places, and definitely more things — already, before they even get to school.
Another distinguishing feature is that her preschoolers engage with each other directly on topics like these, says Salus. In a typical classroom, if one student says that her grandmother lives in Korea, other students may not have any comments to share; if they do, it is likely because they have a grandparent or parent from that same place, and are excited to be able to share that with everyone, too. Generally speaking, though, if the other students have no personal experience with or direct connection to the information being offered by their classmate, they do not engage — they just wait for their turn or for someone else to say something that connects to something about themselves.
In a classroom full of gifted preschoolers, though, the rhythm of conversation is different, mostly because they so often come to school with a vast array of information tucked into their tiny heads. “They understand the comment, and they match it and contribute their own ideas,” she says.
Earlier in the week, for example, the class was discussing shapes, and “one student brought up a parallelogram. Frankly, it’s just not a word other preschoolers would even try to pronounce, much less know. But their hands just shot into the air, and the very next child said that he knew a shape called an icosahedron — he was engaged with that parallelogram comment from a classmate and wanted to share a fancy shape he knew, too (and then we all had to practice saying ‘icosahedron’). That just doesn’t happen in a standard preschool classroom.”
This kind of interchange happens over and over again during the day, she says; if the topic is trees, students will spontaneously share whatever factual information they know on the subject. Someone mentions giant sequoias, and another pipes in with how long they live, and another with how tall they are, and another decides that they’d better not plant the pinecone they found very close to the school building — in case it grows into a huge tree that takes over the whole playground.
Herding curious cats
Salus describes her role as one of a facilitator in these discussions rather than a director: “Do I have to keep them focused? Yes,” she laughs, “and that’s not always easy, because their minds are always buzzing. But instead of me driving a conversation in a particular direction, I guide it, and they contribute and collaborate in a way that is really exciting, for me and for them.”
What she is describing is a program and faculty which are responsive to the characteristic intensity of the gifted child, and flexible enough to accommodate the range of ability in the classroom.
These exchanges are generally not competitive (though admittedly, they sometimes can be) — rather, these children are engaging with intellectual peers who are also knowledgeable and interested in the topic at hand.
What they are benefitting from is a cohort of authentic intellectual peers. While all of the students are not interested in exactly the same things, they do recognize in one another the basic outlines of “passionate about learning.”
And that really does knit them into a classroom family.