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The fifth year of life has been called the adolescence of early childhood. Louise Ames and Frances Ilg, authors of a series of popular parenting manuals, named their book about four-year-olds Your Four-Year-Old: Wild and Wonderful. It really is a Calvin-and-Hobbes life for children this age. They typically leave the ground after breakfast, descend for lunch, and hurry back up to the realm of fantasy until dinner and bed call them back again. Their tales are filled with places that only children inhabit, where children solve life-and-death problems, where children raise each other and live and die—and live again. Four-year-olds begin to explore mortality; yet they typically give themselves powers of perpetual regeneration, bravely dying and ingeniously bringing themselves back to life.

Reality, though, is neck-and-neck with fantasy. As they approach the age of five, preschoolers often become interested in being more conscious learners. They enjoy acquiring knowledge, particularly if it as compelling as or more compelling than their own fantasies. (All the lives of the animal world, for instance, seem to pique their curiosity and focus their learning abilities.) As they approach their kindergarten year, four-year-olds enjoy a good challenge, particularly if it is in the service of a social endeavor. When our teachers wanted the prekindergartners to practice their cutting skills, for example, they suggested that the children cut enough strips of paper to lay end-to-end to stretch completely across the room. This is just the sort of community project that appeals to four-year-old children.

Perhaps the most marked characteristic of this early “adolescence,” however, is the bottomless social appetite of four-year-olds. Many of them love school passionately (and could be there every day from morning until night) because it provides intimate friendships with like-minded peers who are even more attentive and available than parents can sometimes be. They learn at this time in their lives that their friends will be the most loyal and cooperative if they in turn are the same. Thus extremely accelerated social learning occurs in the fifth year, much of it expressed verbally in such straightforward and incisive language that it almost seems as though this is the year in which one’s unconscious gets laid down. All the chattering assumptions about people upon which our adult minds make choices and develop world views are articulated and negotiated OUT LOUD by these brilliant youngsters.

So how does a four-year-old fit best into a preschool setting? With plenty of other four-year-olds and lots of time to build social and creative structure. Four-year-olds take preschool by the horns and make it their own. If they are with three-year-olds, as some of them are in our morning program, they become mentors, and this is a good experience to have in addition to their peer experiences.

If they are in a child-directed prekindergarten setting like ours at Griffin Nursery School, with a larger group of children all around their age, they can quite literally decide upon and implement their own learning experiences (with ample support from teachers), because as competent social beings they can enlist an entire group to act on their ideas. Because their projects become so social and therefore accelerated, their skill-building of necessity also becomes more accelerated. Many children will challenge themselves to learn to write and read when they are four and five because social and creative drives compel them to do so. The play needs tickets with prices on it; the children need to be invited to the party in the doll corner by written invitation; they need to figure out how to make bridal veils for a long-awaited wedding between two beloved children in the group; they must choreograph the wedding for the last day of school (and the teachers don’t find out about it because nobody thinks to tell them, until they are needed to provide musical accompaniment during the ceremony).

We have been talking about developmental norms, of course. The beauty of a child-directed preschool is that the individuality of the students makes each school year unrepeatable. Because of this and because four-year-olds are at the social, intellectual, and physical zenith of their earliest years, the prekindergarten classroom is a power station for creativity. Fact and fantasy mix together to make new life. Our prekindergarten is such a laboratory because of its size (small, but large enough to provide a variety of personalities) and its generosity with time. The children have close to three hours each school day to implement ideas that may have originated weeks before and evolved over time.

Throughout the day, in context, the children are developing self-care, emotional, social, imaginative, critical thinking, numeracy, literacy, fine motor, and gross motor skills.

Self-care: If Kaia wants to take home her picture, she’ll learn to write her name on it, so a teacher will put it in her locker.

Emotional: When her best friend develops another friendship. Anne must grieve, assess, honor the relationship, and move on to new friendships as well.

Social: Anne MAKES a new friend while maintaining her old friendship. “Corey, do you mind if I play with Annabel while you’re playing with Tom?” She is soon ready to play in a group, knowing she is acknowledged and valued by two or more people and will not lose her identity in a larger community.

Imaginative: Dramatic play is the most fulfilling group activity for four- and five-year-olds. Rosey, who has a new baby sister, may let her fellow playmates choose her as the Baby in the game, so that she can experience the totality of her mother’s love once again.

Critical Thinking: Derik concludes that he’d better not interrupt his friend while she’s playing with someone else, or she’ll be irritated and not want to play with him next. Sally realizes that she won’t get paint in her dropper until she squeezes out the “bubbles” first.

Numeracy: Caitlin is 4 years old. She is in a group of 4 friends. They need 4 napkins for their picnic. They only have 3 so they need to make 1 more. And they only have 2 cups, so they need to find 2 more.

Literacy: Beatrice is 6 months older than Quincy, and they are best friends. Beatrice has learned to write her name (so has Quincy) and has developed an interest in her initials. Beatrice, who is often called Bibi for short, decides to develop a nom de plume, “BB.” She develops another one for Quincy, who isn’t yet into initials: QQ. They are henceforth BB and QQ to the whole community.

Fine Motor Skills: Solomon despairs of ever writing his name. “S” is so hard, and his name is so long. The waiting list for the playground obstacle course provides the incentive he needs. He co-writes “S” with a teacher for several days and lets her complete the rest of his name. Soon he is writing “SOL” on his own, and he asks the teacher to complete the rest. (“SOL” will not do as a nickname.) “M”s mysteriously appear next, undoubtedly from practice at home. Now we await his familiarity with “O” and curiosity about “N”. “N”s are hard, as they involve diagonals, but Solomon has already gotten comfortable with “M”s. Soon, he’ll be writing his whole name on the playground waiting list.

Gross Motor Skills: After many, many, many practical jokes with the stuffed and plastic model animals at school, making them all fall and make comical sounds of pain, Mia triumphantly climbs to the top of the jungle gym and balances on the highest bars without holding hands. Hooray!

In our group time during the last half-hour of each day we work on the above developmental areas together, in addition to honing the skills necessary to be happy and involved members of a group: taking turns listening and talking; comprehending and executing short series of actions; having taken the self-care steps necessary to have GOTTEN to the group and to be comfortable once there.