The Ultimate Field Trip for Your Preschooler?!

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Rethink the pros and cons of your weekly trip to the grocery store, says William E. Hovenden, a former headmaster of Sumner Academy — make it a win-win situation for you and your little one.

Tips StoreDuring my many years as the head of a PreK – 8 independent school, I always subscribed to an “open door” philosophy. Parents were regular visitors. They trusted that my degrees in education and my many years of experience as a school administrator had prepared me to answer questions regarding the best approaches for raising and educating children. I was usually deliberately slow in responding to a parent’s request for advice because I knew all too well that an approach that works for one child may not work for another. So, consequently, the parent — usually a mother — seeking a short answer, often found herself involved in a lengthy, philosophical discussion that ended with several possible solutions for resolving the dilemma at hand. However, when I was approached by “Katie” with a unique request, my solution to her problem was straightforward and quite specific.

Katie was the mother of two children enrolled in our school and had a third child at home. Plans were set for the youngest — a boy — to join brother and sister at the start of the next school year. She explained that every Tuesday she made her weekly trip to the grocery store. She was quick to admit that she dreaded every minute of it. “Little ‘Thomas’ is such a handful!,” Katie said. “I want to get in and get out, but he’s impossible! He’s so easily distracted by all the stuff he sees. I constantly tell him to stay with me, but he wanders off. Even when he’s right beside me, he’s constantly trying to pick things up and check them out or play with them. Since we plan to have him here starting next year with his brother and sister, what do you think of the idea of my dropping him off with his siblings on Tuesday mornings for an hour and a half or so and letting him visit the PreK program? I really think the experience would give him a head start for next year and would save me a lot of mental wear and tear.”

I knew immediately that there was no way that I could approve such a request. The teachers would correctly surmise that they were, in fact, babysitting for Katie. Also, such an arrangement could not possibly be made for one parent without it being available to all.

What I See Out There

I do the grocery shopping for my family, and I frequently see mothers in the store with their youngsters. Most of the time, it’s very obvious that neither they nor their children are enjoying the experience. In those situations, while I’m tempted to voice my professional opinion as to how they could resolve the situation, I always bite my tongue realizing that advice from a total stranger would come across as getting involved in somebody else’s business. But with Katie, I realized that this was my chance to say what I wanted to say to all parents who do not enjoy taking their children to the grocery store.

Seeing It Differently

I told Katie that I couldn’t approve her suggested solution. I told her I knew of a way to resolve her problem, but that it required her to see things in a different light; to see the shopping experience with her son as a wonderful opportunity rather than a recurring negative experience. I shared with her a favorite quote of mine from T.S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I explained that in her case she needed to rethink the pros and cons of the weekly trip to the market. When she asked me to clarify what I meant about her situation and T.S. Eliot, I decided that perhaps I was getting too philosophical and needed to move on and just tell her more directly the benefits of taking Thomas to the supermarket.

I asked Katie if she knew what the teachers and I look for when new students apply to our school? She guessed, “Intelligence? That they’re well behaved?” I responded that those qualities are indeed important, but the main trait we like to see is a high degree of curiosity. Children who constantly want to discover, want to understand and want to figure things out are going to do well in school because their highest priority is being engaged — unbridled learning. It stands to reason and research bears it out: children who become lifelong learners tend to be those who, from a very early age, are surrounded by learning opportunities. They’re read to on a regular basis. Their parents and siblings encourage their questions and spend time discovering, discussing and building things with them.

So I concluded, “I am confident you will feel better if you see yourself not only as Thomas’s mother but as his most important preschool teacher! If you want him to succeed in school and get the most out of his learning experiences, it is crucial that his natural sense of curiosity be constantly reinforced. What you need to do is ‘flip’ the way you see the trip to the grocery store. No longer are you and Thomas going to the store to quickly purchase the essential items you need for your pantry, but instead you’re taking an adventuresome field trip. You and Thomas are going to explore some items among the thousands and thousands of possibilities in this huge warehouse! You’ll encourage him to ask questions and to hold and examine various items. And yes, while you are there, don’t forget to get all the items on your list. But remember, buying the groceries and household items is not your primary objective for taking Thomas to the fantastic discovery center known as a supermarket!”

For all families with preschoolers, weekly trips to the store will become a win-win situation for you and your little one once you realize the role these excursions play in your child’s readiness for school.

William E. Hovenden was headmaster at Sumner Academy in Hendersonville for 28 years. He is currently working as an educational consultant.

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