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Beginning School: 3PreK, 4PreK, and Kindergarten
Welcome to Rowland Hall's independent private preschool, an exceptional place for young children in Utah to learn. Early childhood is a time of incredible brain development, and you'll find actively engaged learners within our classrooms and outdoor spaces.
When you enter the Beginning School, it’s immediately clear: this is a place tailor-made to amplify the power and magic of young children. The intentional and joyous celebration of Rowland Hall’s youngest learners reverberates in every corner. And in every classroom and play space, you’ll find master teachers who are at the heart of what we do: provide experiences that encourage curiosity, compassion, expression, and deep thinking. In the Beginning School, students learn how to think, not merely what to think.
I am honored to be a part of this special place that fosters such exceptional learning and teaching in a warm and inclusive community. I hope you’ll come for a visit to see what I see and—more importantly—what our students see.
Beginning School and Lower School Principal
Every classroom has shelves full of them, available for students to build whatever their imaginations desire. If you go into a classroom while school is in session, you’ll likely have to step over at least a couple walls or towers as you maneuver the space. In doing so, you are stepping right into the middle of a math lesson.
“We use the blocks to teach math concepts like half and whole and fractions,” said kindergarten lead teacher Melanie Robbins. “We start with a student exploring with blocks and expand that experience by asking questions and exploring new ways to look at things.”
Research shows that an early focus on math helps not only with mathematical cognition later, but also with overall learning throughout a child’s education.
Math isn’t a subject that you normally think of being taught in an early childhood setting. For decades the focus has been on literacy for younger children. Research shows that an early focus on math helps not only with mathematical cognition later, but also with overall learning throughout a child’s education. It’s something kindergartener Aria S. seems to realize, even though she’s only six. “I love math because it helps organize your brain,” she says. “It clears your brain and makes it so you can think easily.”
The ways math is taught in early education don’t look like what you might imagine. Yes, if you ask the students if they are learning math they will say they are, and will tell you all about addition and subtraction, how one plus one equals two, and the differences between working with “big” numbers and “small” numbers. What they won’t mention, though, is that they are being taught that math is all around them, in every part of their daily lives—that’s because it’s so naturally woven through the curriculum.
“We are a math community. We do math workshops, but we also use the language of math when we go on shape walks, or during dramatic play time,” Melanie said. “We do so much of our math through stories. It allows math to fluidly enter their brains.”
Teaching math through storytelling also allows the students to teach each other. In one recent lesson students listened to a story about a baby’s adventure as he explored his backyard. While they listened, they drew maps of where the baby went, how his movement formed shapes, and how far he traveled. Then they compared what they had each drawn.
Teaching math through storytelling also allows the students to teach each other.
“We look at how everyone thought about it differently,” Melanie said. “The students explain their thinking, and other students can collaborate and expand on concepts. It brings a joyful energy to math.”
While communal lessons are a cornerstone of teaching, there is also value in the smaller teachable moments. “We as teachers are always looking at how our students are exploring and how we can expand those experiences with questions,” said Melanie. “It’s about giving them choice and voice in how they learn and retain those lessons. We are intentional with our actions, but we are teaching in a way they aren’t thinking, ‘We’re doing math right now.’”
That brings us back to the blocks. As the kids get them out to build the city of the day, they are talking about their design ideas and who or what will live there. But they are also talking about how many blocks they will need to complete the various parts, and how to brace those blocks so they won’t fall down easily. It’s play, but math is also at work.
“The block building piece of the Beginning School is very mathematical,” said Melanie. “You can always identify Rowland Hall students by their block-building abilities.”
On March 18, Rowland Hall was thrilled to welcome grandparents and other special friends to our campuses for our first Grandparents Day since November 2019.
A cherished school event, Grandparents Day provides students’ most beloved adults the opportunity to enjoy short programs and tour the school. This year’s event kicked off on the McCarthey Campus, home to students in 3PreK through fifth grade. Grandparents enjoyed a performance featuring music, singing, and dancing by kindergartners and fifth graders, followed by classroom visits. Visitors were then welcomed to the Lincoln Street Campus, home to students in sixth through 12th grades, where they were treated to a performance by members of the chamber orchestra and a student-led tour of campus.
Thank you to everyone who joined us for this year’s Grandparents Day. We look forward to welcoming you back next year.
Research is clear: Investing in early childhood education is a smart move. Not only is it one of the surest ways to set students on paths of lifelong curiosity and well-being, but it’s also been proven to enhance both individual lives and society at large. At Rowland Hall, thanks to a focus on evidence-based education, we have long been crafting a top-tier early childhood program centered around best practices for young learners during crucial years of their development. As a result, students leave the Beginning School viewing themselves as capable knowledge-makers, ready to thrive in the next stage of their joyful educational journeys.
In Melanie Robbins and Mary Grace Ellison’s kindergarten classroom, a small sign hangs over a row of student cubbies. It’s inconspicuous, but, once noticed, seems to summarize the day-to-day happenings of the energetic and vibrant room.
“Play,” it states, “is the work of childhood.”
This Jean Piaget quote, beautifully succinct, is a reminder that the activities that take place in Melanie and Mary Grace’s room, and in all Rowland Hall Beginning School classrooms, are not just fun—they’re incredibly meaningful, and essential to children’s development. By tapping into the most natural and essential of early childhood activities—play—educators are building crucial connections in young brains and setting a joyful foundation for discovering, exploring, embracing, and creating knowledge.
On a Thursday morning in February, the Piaget quote kept watch over a bustle of activity among the kindergartners. Walking by, a casual observer may have thought the activity was free play, but there was a thoughtful academic purpose behind the fun: the five- and six-year-olds were busy making their way through an array of learning centers designed for their Animals in Winter unit, a study of how animals hibernate, migrate, and adapt during the coldest months.
It was a time of play—and yet it was about so much more than the play. The longer the class was observed, the more apparent it became that a trove of educational and developmental benefits were taking shape just below the surface.
At one table, two girls bent over the covers of the animal reports they were creating for the unit; using library books as guides, they illustrated their chosen animals, a chipmunk and a fox, on the report covers. Nearby, a group of students, sprawled across cushions, worked on core literacy skills on iPads, while another, more rowdy, group rolled an oversized die and moved animal figurines across a homemade playing board. On the far side of the room, students looked through a pile of materials—empty oatmeal canisters, bits of cardboard, string—to be crafted into an animal habitat. In between these stations, children sorted animal pictures into groups or practiced writing letters, some with crayons on paper, others with fingers in sand. For an hour, the students enjoyed the freedom to sample whatever most appealed to them at any given moment, and to take from the group what they needed—for a few, it was a time to step back to reflect and quietly work on activities alone; for others, to engage with peers.
It was a time of play—and yet it was about so much more than the play. Like taking a cursory glance at a frozen winter landscape, which doesn’t reveal the rabbit blending into the snow or the entry to an animal den, just glancing at the fun would have limited the viewer’s understanding of what was occurring in the classroom. The longer the class was observed, the more apparent it became that a trove of educational and developmental benefits were taking shape just below the surface: Students cutting materials for the animal habitat or practicing writing the letter S with stumpy crayons were honing fine-motor skills. Those at the game board were mastering math by matching the number of dots on the die to the number of spaces they had to move. And all around the room, students were building social skills, whether while waiting for a turn or while navigating a disagreement.
“This is the power of early childhood,” said Melanie.
A Solid Foundation
At Rowland Hall’s Beginning School, an emphasis on well-grounded early childhood research, such as that around the benefits of purposeful play, is at the heart of the student experience—and for good reason. Between the ages of three and six, the time during which they begin to attend school, children’s brains are in the midst of a tremendous evolution that educators need to understand to fully support.
“The three-to-six age range is marked by huge transformation in the architecture of the brain, and the structures that get laid down during that time will persist,” said Principal Emma Wellman, who has led the Beginning School since 2018, and, in the 2021–2022 school year, took on the expanded role of Beginning School and Lower School principal. During the preschool and kindergarten years, Emma explained, foundational behaviors, aptitudes, skills, and values are ingrained in the brain, so it’s essential that children’s first teachers know how to positively impact this development.
“Early childhood teachers are laying the foundation for lifelong learning in terms of how students relate to school and to one another, and to themselves as learners and workers,” said Emma.
During the preschool and kindergarten years, foundational behaviors, aptitudes, skills, and values are ingrained in the brain, so it’s essential that children’s first teachers know how to positively impact this development.
Through thoughtful play and other proven early education tactics, educators can boost brain-building in ways that last: studies show that students who attend early childhood programs are more likely to later demonstrate high-functioning skills, such as strong emotional and social intelligence, curiosity, and discipline, and more likely to report high rates of fulfilling relationships and fulfilling careers. And it’s not just individual lives that benefit; there are also economic advantages to investing in early childhood education. Dr. James J. Heckman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and an expert in the economics of human development, has found that investments in early childhood education result in the highest rates of economic returns, both for individuals and society at large. Simply put: investing in early childhood education is one of the best ways to greatly impact lives.
“You’re giving extra support in a time when it matters most,” said Emma.
An Emphasis on Relationship
When it comes to how children relate to school, teachers are often the key factor, and this is especially true in early childhood classrooms, where the trust educators build with young students sets them on paths of learning, curiosity, and self-discovery. In fact, said Emma, because warm, trusting relationships are strongly shown to be vital to early learning, they’re the first thing she recommends people look for when exploring preschool and kindergarten programs.
“The most important thing is the teacher-student relationship, because learning happens in the context of relationship,” she explained. “Everything is built on that.”
In the Beginning School, a focus on relationship, alongside an emphasis on reciprocal respect between teachers and students, guides everything from class sizes to division specialties; as a result, students remain at the center of decision-making. A focus on relationships also encourages more natural student participation in classroom happenings, an essential component to building brain connections in young learners.
“We want to make sure that kids remain in charge of big chunks of their own learning so that they don’t become dependent on the grown-ups to drive it for them,” said Emma.
This ownership over learning expands during children’s time in the Beginning School. As they build strong relationships with their students, teachers can encourage them to work on mastering both early academic skills and self-care activities. Through a process known as scaffolding, teachers support students as they make their way through the zone of proximal development—that is, the difference between what a child can do without help and what they can do with guidance and encouragement from a teacher. It’s a way to meet each learner where they are their own individual development, and it can be applied to both academic subjects, like building foundational skills in number sense and phonological awareness, or life skills, like putting on a coat or a mask.
“School is the perfect place for that practice to happen and to develop those skills, which are critical in other learning,” said Beginning School Assistant Principal Brittney Hansen ’02. “We take our time to let everyone learn that they can do an activity all by themselves and feel that confidence, that sense of pride, and carry themselves a little bit taller because of it.”
A Child-Sized Experience
It’s not difficult to find students owning their learning in the Beginning School: the process can be observed in the 3PreK student working to zip her coat, the kindergartner choosing a quiet-time book from the classroom library, and the 4PreK student sorting a pile of twigs, pine cones, and leaves gathered during outdoor classroom. Active learning is around every corner.
“All of our learning is entirely exploratory and we foster kids’ natural curiosity,” said Kelley Journey, the Beginning School’s experiential learning specialist. “We give kids a lot of authentic opportunities to learn in real-world situations.”
The design of the building even encourages this exploration; you don’t need to walk far into the Beginning School to realize that the place is built for young learners. Bulletin boards, supplies, and books are set at the children’s eye level. Easy-to-access cubbies provide space for each person’s belongings. Child-sized restrooms are attached to classrooms, encouraging independence (while also providing reassurance that trusted adults are nearby, if needed). Simple decor and minimal reference material leave room for imagination. All of these choices, explained Brittney, are based on sound research and made mindfully and intentionally to encourage natural curiosity and to empower students to move effortlessly among spaces as they follow their interests or learn to manage their personal needs.
“A key function of early childhood education is for students to learn, to be able to take care of themselves and their belongings, to feel ownership over their space and learning environment, and to feel confident navigating the school,” said Brittney.
Educators in the Beginning School are very intentional about integrating areas of learning in meaningful, authentic ways for children.—Brittney Hansen ’02, Beginning School assistant principal
Beginning School days are also set up to harness the ways in which children learn best: there are moments of active play as well as quiet time, and educators stretch young brains with both structured lessons and space for choice and self-exploration—what Rowland Hall often refers to as choice and voice. This inclusion of choice, explained Kelley, is important for all students, but especially significant to young learners who often don’t feel they have a lot of control over their lives: when much of your day includes being told what to do, and when to do it, by adults, having choice in how you want to learn—alongside access to child-sized structures and materials that allow you to work without a grown-up’s help—you begin to view yourself as a capable knowledge-maker. Students given choice can see themselves as scientists, engineers, or artists, and they believe in their ability to find solutions, improve processes, or add beauty to the world.
And because Rowland Hall is an independent school, Beginning School teachers (like teachers across all of the school’s divisions) have the flexibility to explore the topics that spark their students’ interests. They’re naturals when it comes to identifying subjects that light up students’ eyes, and they enjoy the flexibility to adjust lesson plans in order to follow these paths, weaving foundational academic knowledge into the areas their individual classes wish to explore.
“Educators in the Beginning School are very intentional about integrating areas of learning in meaningful, authentic ways for children,” said Brittney. “We are less about saying, for instance, ‘Now is our time for science.’ Instead, we think of something that’s captivating and interesting for the child and then say, ‘It’s my job to figure out how to weave science into this.’”
A Community of Learners
There is a common refrain about Rowland Hall’s Beginning School: “This is a happy place.” Visitors frequently comment on the division’s warm atmosphere and often report feeling a sense of joy during their time there. For Emma and her leadership team, these reactions to the school aren't a coincidence; they’re confirmation that Rowland Hall is providing support exactly where it’s needed—for young learners, as well as for the adults who make their education possible.
Rowland Hall is so special. All faculty members are complete lifelong learners and continually challenge themselves to practice the best theories and pedagogies for children.—Kelley Journey, experiential learning specialist
“One way we show respect to teachers is by giving them opportunities and responsibility to be learners in their own right, to continue their own professional lives,” explained Emma. And this is important because early childhood programs that prioritize the well-being of their educators see numerous benefits—for instance, teachers with supportive administrators spend more of their time focused on students, and they’re more likely to stay with a school for the long haul. Professional development opportunities at Rowland Hall range from growing personal passions or areas of growth, like when kindergarten teacher Melanie Robbins helped incorporate outdoor classroom into the division’s curriculum, to exploring ways teachers can support Rowland Hall’s mission and strategic priorities, such as when 4PreK lead teacher Isabelle Buhler studied equity and inclusion in the early childhood programs.
“Rowland Hall is so special,” said Kelley. “All faculty members are complete lifelong learners and continually challenge themselves to practice the best theories and pedagogies for children.”
They challenge each other too: faculty are encouraged to share takeaways from their professional development experiences, a practice that supports one another’s engagement with, and investment in, their essential roles. It’s a practice that also ensures everything they do comes back to students: by staying current with early childhood research findings, the Beginning School team can provide the school’s youngest learners with what they most need, creating a solid educational foundation for those students and, at the same time, illustrating for them the value of learning.
And it’s perhaps this practice that best explains why the Beginning School is such a happy place: it’s a place that highlights the thrill of learning, where students see in teachers the lifelong benefits of staying curious, and where, through the eyes of children, adults are continuously reminded of the pure joy of discovery, of allowing curiosity to take you to new places, and of understanding just what you’re capable of.
It’s the magic of early childhood.
Looking for a preschool or kindergarten? Download Rowland Hall's tips for picking a top-tier early childhood program.
If you want to get kids in 4PreK talking you need to ask them about their buddies.
“My buddy’s name is Victoria.”
“My buddy’s name is Mateo.”
“I don’t know my buddy’s name, but I like him.”
Immediately the conversation ping pongs from making wreaths with buddies, to drawing with them, to how old their buddies are, to which buddies are too big to swing on the monkey bars. Everyone has something to say about their buddy, and everyone is very enthusiastic about the subject.
Each fall fourth and fifth graders from the Lower School are partnered with a Beginning School buddy to work with throughout the year. It’s a lot of fun. It’s also rooted in sound pedagogy.
The buddy program at Rowland Hall has been in existence for decades. Each fall fourth and fifth graders from the Lower School are partnered with a Beginning School buddy to work with throughout the year. The pair write notes to each other, do projects together, and learn about each other’s interests. It’s a lot of fun. It’s also rooted in sound pedagogy.
“We know from research that kids benefit from mixed aged play and learning opportunities,” said Brittney Hansen, Beginning School assistant principal. “Both the older and younger groups are given ways to grow socially, emotionally, and intellectually.”
Rowland Hall is lucky enough to provide a perfect environment for such learning. Not many schools range in age from preschool to senior high. The fact that students start at such a young age and are part of the community for such a long time allows relationships to form and bonds to build that otherwise are not possible. The buddy program underscores that and starts fostering feelings of community and belonging at the earliest opportunity.
“This program is a great example of how we capitalize on our mixed age community,” said Brittney. “And the buddy relationship doesn’t stop at the end of the year. These are relationships that are sustained and grow and build in time.”
“Most of the kids develop a very strong friendship with their buddies,” said Isabelle Buhler, 4PreK lead teacher. “And when students who were ‘little’ buddies return in fourth and fifth grade as ‘big’ buddies they are very excited because they remember those relationships. They remember that they had a special connection.”
That feeling of connection and that beginning of community building is the prime focus for the PreK students. They are learning that there is a lot more happening at the school than the daily goings on in their classrooms—and they are learning it in a very personalized way.
“This is a one-on-one interaction,” said Isabelle. “We may have other all-school activities but this is more focused and personal. It’s one of the deeper connections we have.”
While community is the focus for the little buddies, the lessons being learned by the older students are, understandably, more complex. “This is an opportunity for them to begin seeing themselves as mentors and leaders,” said Emma Wellman, principal of the beginning and lower schools. “They have to practice a great deal of patience and empathy and learn to navigate different relationship dynamics.”
This is an opportunity to begin seeing themselves as mentors and leaders. They have to practice a great deal of patience and empathy and learn to navigate different relationship dynamics.”—Emma Wellman, Beginning School and Lower School principal
Anyone who has ever dealt with a high-energy, demanding preschooler knows just how challenging those dynamics can be. But the Lower School students are up to the task and greet the opportunity with gusto. “Sometimes they can be a little hard to be around,” said fourth grader Jack G. “But they can also be really fun and energetic.”
“My buddy decides what we play,” said fifth grader Viviene D. “I ask if she wants to do and then she takes me somewhere random and we play.”
The big buddy/little buddy dynamic isn’t the only one for the older kids to examine. Being in a leadership role gives them a new view of the responsibilities and issues their teachers may face. “They learn a lot of empathy for adults,” said Jen Bourque, fifth-grade teacher. “They also start using language they have learned and stored away. I’ll hear students saying things like ‘We didn’t clean up. We moved on, but we didn’t clean up,’ when interacting with their buddies.”
Those types of interactions were absent last year as we locked down and worked through the uncertain days of the pandemic. The absence of the buddy program was acutely felt among both students and teachers in a time already filled with losses. “The buddy program is something students ask about each year before it even starts,” said Brittney. “When we were able to reintroduce it there was a lot of excitement and a feeling of relief.”
4PreK student Mille P. may sum up everyone’s feelings best. “When the big buddies come I’m really excited,” she said. “I just want to run to them but I know I have to wait. I just want to run because I love my big buddy.”