Sparking Curiosity

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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—see what our students see.

Sincerely, 

Emma Wellman 
Beginning School Principal

Preschool students listening to their teacher at Rowland Hall, an independent private school in Salt Lake City.
Preschool student making art at Rowland Hall, an independent private school in Salt Lake City.
Preschooler and teacher doing a science unit at Rowland Hall, an independent private school in Salt Lake City.
Independent Private Beginning School Principal - Emma Wellman - Salt Lake City, Utah

Emma Wellman
Beginning School Principalget to know Emma

Contact the Beginning School

720 South Guardsman Way, 
Salt Lake City, Utah 84108
801-355-7485

Beginning School Stories in Fine Print Magazine

Rowland Hall kindergartners around the story fire during outdoor classroom.

On a mild January morning, a Rowland Hall kindergarten class gathered around an imaginary fire. Surrounding them were the sounds of birds chirping, and the open fields and majestic trees of Sunnyside Park, a public greenspace located across the street from the McCarthey Campus. Behind their masks were the unmistakable signs of smiles as they called out the reading powers they’d been practicing.

“Stretching-out power!”

“Pointer power!”

“Beginning sound power!”

After listing all of their superpowers, the students picked up books, as well as pieces of carpet to help keep them dry, and excitedly walked to their favorite park trees. They settled down at the base of the trunks and began to read out loud. From across the field came the sound of little voices sounding out words. At each tree, a child sat focused, tracing a finger across a page to track their place and, occasionally, pausing to share an illustration with the tree.

The research is clear: spending time learning outdoors results in stickier learning, better emotional regulation, connection to and appreciation for nature, better collaboration skills amongst students—even improved appetite and eye development in young children.—Emma Wellman, Beginning School principal

Reading to the trees has become a beloved component of outdoor classroom, the newest addition to this year’s kindergarten curriculum. “There’s something magical about it,” said kindergarten lead teacher Melanie Robbins, who—with her background teaching outdoor classroom at the International School of Zug and Luzern in Switzerland, and studying nature education in Finland—has played a big role in introducing the learning method to Rowland Hall.

Put simply, outdoor classroom is the practice of taking school lessons outside to enhance learning. It’s a good fit for Rowland Hall’s Beginning School, where a focus on indoor-outdoor education and its benefits has always been a priority (design features of the Beginning School building even include access to common courtyards from all classrooms and a dedicated division nature yard).

“The research is clear: spending time learning outdoors results in stickier learning, better emotional regulation, connection to and appreciation for nature, better collaboration skills amongst students—even improved appetite and eye development in young children,” said Beginning School Principal Emma Wellman. Melanie agreed, noting that her early interest in outdoor classroom was sparked after seeing firsthand the benefits of learning outside, including the realization of how much more captivated students seemed to be in nature. 

“I noticed that the children were even more engaged than they were when we were inside, and I wanted to know more about this,” she said.

A kindergartner reading to a tree during outdoor classroom.

Reading to the trees has quickly become a favorite part of outdoor classroom at Rowland Hall.

And though an emphasis on outdoor classroom was already playing a role in plans for the 2020–2021 school year, the pandemic helped turn it into a priority (or, as the teachers view it, a COVID silver lining) since learning outdoors is safer for teachers and students. Many Beginning School teachers now choose to utilize Sunnyside Park for lessons each week—appointments that have become so cherished, teachers say, that students are “devastated” when a scheduling conflict or severe weather derails plans.

“I think there’s this freedom in the outdoors that they’re connected to,” Melanie explained.

In fact, the instructors say that despite the park’s many distractions, students are greatly connected to outdoor activities, and their focus and overall stamina for learning have improved outdoors. The story fire ritual that opens each session, for instance, is helping to sharpen their listening and imagining skills, while reading to trees is helping to build confidence and endurance (“We can read a lot longer outside than we do inside,” said Melanie). These benefits aren’t limited to certain subjects, either. Teachers can take almost any unit of study to the park (and some have been known to wheel two wagons’ worth of supplies over to do just that) and are also utilizing the space’s natural materials for lessons. As a result, students are trying all sorts of activities, from practicing measurements and studying patterns, to creating art and making science drawings.

“We want to get kids learning from the world around them, making real-world connections with science, and bringing math, language, and literacy into an outdoor space,” said lead kindergarten teacher Kelley Journey, who previously taught at a nature-based school in Massachusetts.

I used to think it was fun to take kids outdoors. But now I know that it is a uniquely powerful setting to help develop curious, happy, focused learners.—Melanie Robbins, kindergarten lead teacher

Outdoor classroom is also proving to be a way to build on already-successful units. 4PreK lead teacher Kait Abraham, who’s attended outdoor classroom seminars, brought it into her classroom this year and said it’s been a valuable addition to units like the evergreen study, which had previously only been conducted on campus. By including Sunnyside Park in this year’s study, Kait said, students could view more types of evergreen trees as well as access fallen branches, sticks, and pine cones to use in counting and sorting exercises.

“It was really cool to see how kids take what we usually study indoors into the outdoors and study it even deeper,” she reflected.

And that indoor-outdoor link is happening across the division, with teachers seeing children asking more complex questions and realizing that learning happens in all kinds of places. For Melanie, their joyful engagement, and the fun they’re having because of it, is a reminder of the initial spark that drove her to study outdoor classroom.

"I used to think it was fun to take kids outdoors,” she said. “But now I know that it is a uniquely powerful setting to help develop curious, happy, focused learners."

Academics

Lower School student working on class project

In the newest episode of Rowland Hall’s award-winning princiPALS podcast, Beginning School Principal Emma Wellman and Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus discuss some of the most inspiring things they’ve learned (so far) while educating preschool- and elementary-aged children during the pandemic.

During the first months of in-person instruction since March, the princiPALS have learned a lot about the capability of children, the power of good teaching, and the strength of community.

Recorded during the 14th week of Rowland Hall’s 2020–2021 school year, Emma and Jij reflect on leading their divisions during the first months of in-person instruction since the school moved to full distance learning in March. During that time, they said, they’ve learned a lot about the capability of children, the power of good teaching, and the strength of community. And though they’re aware that schools across the country are dealing with different learning models and regional challenges, they believe that their perspectives on in-person learning during the pandemic may help other educators—as well as answer some of the many questions parents and caregivers have as schools readjust learning models in 2021.

“Our hope is that these important things we’ve learned are helpful to anyone out there,” said Jij.

The princiPALS also draw on their top lessons to create tips that will help parents and caregivers continue to support children (and themselves) at this time, with an emphasis on making intentional choices rather than, as Emma noted, “letting the world wash over you.”

Listen to “What We’re Learning about Learning during a Pandemic,” along with other episodes of princiPALS, on Rowland Hall's website, Stitcher, and Apple Podcasts.

Podcast

A Rowland Hall lower schooler playing ukulele in music class.


Watch our COVID-adjusted music program shine in this year's Lower School virtual holiday program, organized by McCarthey Campus Music Teacher Susan Swidnicki and filmed by videographer and PE teacher Collin Wolfe.

Susan Swidnicki, McCarthey Campus music teacher, is passionate about the power of music—especially during a global pandemic.

There’s perspective in music. People use music both for celebration and for mourning—and for understanding life a little better: love and friendship and what is important.—Susan Swidnicki, McCarthey Campus music teacher

“There’s perspective in music,” she said. “People use music both for celebration and for mourning—and for understanding life a little better: love and friendship and what is important.”

For many, music has been a powerful tool for coping with the emotions that the pandemic has stirred up—and that’s true for all ages, Susan explained. During the early childhood and elementary years, music can help children process and express big emotions, as well as build their confidence. As a longtime music educator, Susan has seen this again and again: how a song can help a child work through a difficult experience, how the discovery of hidden musical talent can awaken a previously unengaged student, or how performing in front of classmates can empower a shy student. It was, therefore, more imperative than ever to safely provide music education this year.

“I needed to figure out a way that kids could have skilled, active music making together in community,” Susan said.

Susan spent the spring and summer immersed in professional development with music educators around the world, trading ideas and best practices for lessons that fit within safety recommendations and school guidelines. She acknowledged that this was tricky: Rowland Hall has a long tradition of active music making, and the Lower School curriculum uses the Orff Schulwerk music-education approach, which emphasizes play, and in which music and movement go hand in hand. But under the school’s health and safety guidelines, activities like singing, playing the recorder, working in small groups, and folk dancing were off the table. Susan didn’t let this discourage her, though. Like many other COVID-related challenges, she said, it just required a new kind of thinking and some creativity.

“We’re all learning that we can adapt and be flexible,” she said, “and that we are more resilient than we thought.”

For Susan, this meant examining the skills that music class has always built, and then finding new ways to teach them. For example, she’s developing students’ notation, rhythm, and patterning skills with sets of non-wind instruments—like ukuleles, bucket drums, glockenspiels, boomwhackers, xylophones, and hand drums—that are rotated among classes monthly. Additionally, she’s helping kids, who tend to think of movement as something that requires their legs, find different ways to express themselves with their bodies. “They’re learning there are other parts to movement to explore,” said Susan, like arms and torsos, and even facial expressions around their masks (she challenges them to do things like share feelings using only their eyes).

Rowland Hall Lower School students play instruments at their desks in adherence with safety guidelines.

And to continue helping students process 2020, Susan is also focusing on ways to further tie music education with school-wide social-emotional learning goals. She plans to expose students to music and expressive movements that don’t always reflect happiness, as well as to continue to introduce them to music from around the globe to illustrate how many cultures use music to make sense of the world. It’s clear that every choice she makes is thoughtful and designed to support students’ overall well-being, whether they are learning in the classroom or from home.

Despite the year’s limitations, Susan says students are still shining in music class, discovering not only their ability to create, but an understanding that they have something to contribute.

“My main goal, of course, is to keep kids healthy, but also to give them some sense of peace and calmness in their day,” Susan said.

And, of course, to empower them. Despite the year’s limitations, Susan says students are still shining in music class, discovering not only their ability to create, but an understanding that they have something to contribute, “which I think is one of the biggest messages we want to give to children right now,” she said.

Susan Swidnicki, formerly our Beginning School music teacher, took over for longtime McCarthey Campus music teacher Cindy Hall after Cindy retired this summer. Susan—also a professional oboist who has played with the Ballet West Orchestra and the Utah Symphony—was a natural choice and Rowland Hall is so grateful to have her. Read more about Susan in this 2018 profile.


The Many Benefits of Music

Rowland Hall has long embraced active music making, and each division offers opportunities for students to build musical artistry. On the McCarthey Campus, explained Susan, music is an integral part of the beginning and lower schools’ curricula for many reasons:

  • It builds self-discipline. In music class, students learn to control themselves within a group by listening to and respecting their peers when they perform.

  • It encourages bravery. Everyone is expected to contribute, which builds students’ confidence and performance skills—and sometimes even taps into undiscovered talent.

  • It helps students get comfortable making mistakes. Though all students are expected to contribute in music class, perfection is never expected. “You can still enjoy the process with mistakes,” said Susan.

  • It supports math skills. The skills built in music class, like patterning, can help contribute to students’ success in math.

  • It supports language skills. Music class helps build language skills in many ways, from exposing students to vocabulary and rhyming words, to helping build fluid reading skills with meter.

  • It exposes students to diverse cultures. A culturally inclusive music approach, like Orff Schulwerk, helps students understand and appreciate the diversity of cultures.

Academics

Masked Beginning School students play outside on the McCarthey Campus.

Will our youngest learners wear masks? This question was on many early educators’ minds this summer as schools considered how to return to in-person learning—which experts agree is best for children—in the fall.

Rowland Hall Beginning School Principal Emma Wellman on Park City Television's November 17 Mountain Connections, discussing how adults can teach mask wearing to young children.

At Rowland Hall, administrators began working toward this goal in the spring, closely monitoring scientific data and the most current recommendations from organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as consulting with local medical experts. Since then, the school has put into place many guidelines and procedures to allow for in-person learning, including requiring all students and adults on our campuses to wear face coverings.

In Rowland Hall’s Beginning School—which serves students in 3PreK, 4PreK, and kindergarten—teachers spent the summer consulting resources and considering how they would approach mask wearing with the school’s youngest learners. They ultimately decided to teach this new life skill like they would any other—using the positive, supportive approach that the Beginning School is known for. But unlike washing hands, tying shoelaces, or zipping coats, mask wearing has an added layer of the unknown, plus built-in anxiety tied to the pandemic behind the requirement. As summer drew to a close, the teachers wondered: Would kids actually wear masks? And how much time would adults have to spend managing them? 

They didn’t have to wait long for an answer, which became clear the very first week of school: not only are Rowland Hall’s youngest students willing to wear masks, but they’re wearing them without complaint and with minimal reminders.

“They’re doing awesome,” said Isabelle Buhler, 4PreK lead teacher. “It’s amazing what kids can do.”

They really respond to keeping each other safe.—Gail Rose, 3PreK lead teacher

In fact, wearing masks alongside their peers at school is proving to be a powerful way to help normalize this behavior in children. Teachers are also keeping discussions about masks positive, focusing on community benefits to appeal to young children’s natural empathy. In Gail Rose’s 3PreK class, for instance, she and assistant teacher Kirsten White explain that each child plays a role in keeping the class, and the larger school community, safe and healthy. As a result, instead of thinking about masks as a hindrance, kids view them as a way to care for their friends.

“They really respond to keeping each other safe,” said Gail.

And while educators, parents, and caregivers were understandably worried that masks would affect children’s school experience—with concerns varying from whether they would alter their ability to socialize normally to whether kids could breathe comfortably—the Beginning School teachers are happy to report that this hasn’t been the case at Rowland Hall.

“After a few days, it seemed like the kids forgot they had a mask,” said Isabelle. Gail added, “It is not interfering with their ability to have fun at school at all.”

Katie Williams with kindergarten students (and the class' masked mascots).

Katie Williams playing a game with three of her kindergartners. Masked mascots Roary and Mabel are also pictured.

The teachers often hear children kindly reminding one another to pull up masks that have slipped beneath noses, and they marvel at how children have embraced new rules, like sitting six feet apart, without a problem. Lead kindergarten teacher Katie Williams recalled an early experience that illustrated to her how quickly students accepted mask wearing: after she and assistant teacher Beth Ott discussed masks on the first day of school, students pointed out that Mabel, the stuffed elephant from their phonics unit, wasn’t masked. Katie remembered thinking, “Whoa, this is so normal for them.” Since then, all of the class’s stuffed animals have been given masks (the teachers even use Roary, Rowland Hall’s mascot, to drive home skills by bringing him to morning circle with his mask on wrong so the kids can correct him). It was a powerful reminder of how resilient little people are—and how they can surprise adults when given the chance.

“They can do anything, those kids,” said Isabelle. “They’re unbelievable.”


Encouraging Mask Wearing: Our Teachers’ Top Tips for Parents and Caregivers

Downloadable Tips: Encouraging Mask Wearing Among Young Children

   ↪ Download our tips (PDF)

At Rowland Hall’s Beginning School, mask wearing is viewed and taught as a life skill—and like any other life skill, practice makes perfect. Below, teachers share their top tips for parents and caregivers who want to continue building mask-wearing skills outside of school.

  • Model mask wearing. Continue to normalize mask wearing by letting your children see you putting on your mask whenever possible.

  • Let children be the teachers. Give children opportunities to teach the mask-wearing skills they are learning at school. Ask them to remind you of the proper way to put on a mask, for example, or to show you on a favorite stuffed animal (this is especially helpful for kids who need to practice the fine-motor skills required for putting on masks).

  • Talk about the importance of masks, but don’t give too much information. Short, simple answers are best for this age group (“We wear masks to help keep us and our friends safe”). Check out Wearing a Mask, a free Autism Little Learners story, for help guiding conversations (Gail and Kirsten read this story aloud on the first day of school).

  • Help children choose the best masks for them. Like adults, kids want their masks to be comfortable, but you might need to do some searching to find one that fits your child’s face. Look for masks that comfortably cover the nose and mouth but don't move when the child talks. Also check that masks don't pinch or squish ears (consider styles that let you adjust elastic length) and experiment with fabrics—our teachers recommend cotton, but advise against neoprene (it loses its shape over the day).

  • Give children mask-related tasks. Kids want to help keep their families safe, so give them jobs like handing out masks to family members every morning. Also, let your children choose the masks they want to wear each day as a simple, fun way to build their autonomy.

  • Keep extra masks on hand. You never know when a mask will become uncomfortable, dirty, wet, or lost. Keep spares in places like the glovebox or purse, and remember to pack extras in your children’s school bags.

  • Praise children. It can be hard to wear a mask all day. Remind your children how proud you are of them for keeping on their masks and protecting others.


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