The Play's the Thing
The doctor hammers a syringe into the table. A whole crowd locks itself into a dungeon. The baker stands on the table and barks.
This is not a scene from a surrealist film. It’s the classroom of Sam Orans ’90, M.S.Ed. ’91, who teaches three-year-olds at the Early Childhood Center, Sarah Lawrence’s renowned laboratory preschool. Orans sits on a tiny chair in the middle of the orderly din and calmly discusses the ideal breakfast food—pizza muffins— with one of his students.
Orans has taught at several New York area preschools over the last 14 years, working almost exclusively with three- to four-year olds. “We think alike,” he says, only half joking. “It’s exhausting, but being with kids this age doesn’t feel like work.” A boy comes up to him and flops down in his lap. Orans gives him a hug.
Though he has worked at the ECC for only a year, Orans (whose mother, Jane Miller Orans ’56, is also an educator) is no stranger to it. As a child, he attended the same class he now teaches, and he did fieldwork there for a psychology conference project during his freshman year—discovering his facility for working with children. He also found that his own learning disability was something of an asset in the classroom, helping him to understand children’s struggles to read and write and inspiring him to become a more effective teacher.
In addition to teaching community skills like working as a group, solving conflicts and negotiating friendships, Orans’ classroom builds foundations for writing, reading, math and science. But there is no strict format to the class. The children play; Orans uses whatever they’re playing with as a basis for discussion. His goal is to get them to ask questions: Why, for example, does a container get heavier when you fill it with sand? In true Sarah Lawrence fashion, he answers them with more questions, provoking them to formulate their own ideas about the world. “I don’t tell kids what to think—they have to discover answers for themselves,” he says.
He sits down on a carpet next to a bookshelf and starts singing a song. Half of the kids drop their blocks and dinosaurs and gather around him, singing. Once the group is settled, Orans begins to read aloud, unfazed by the fact that several children continue playing in the other room. “When I first started teaching, I worried that if I allowed kids to forgo story time, the freedom would lead to chaos,” he says. “But in practice, it doesn’t. The kids enjoy and respect reading more when it’s a choice rather than a requirement.”
After the story is done, the children return to their games. Then come clean-up time, snack time and outdoor play. Orans finds an errant sock, returns it to its owner and makes sure everyone is wearing shoes in preparation for the journey to the playground. Later, after the children have finished playing outside and have gone home with their parents, Orans and his two student teachers write down detailed observations about the children’s behavior. This daily record reveals developmental trends that help Orans plan teaching strategies for each child. “Focusing on the needs of the children takes a lot of energy,” Orans says. “It would be much easier to teach every child the same way, but it wouldn’t be right.”
As he prepares to leave for the day, the classroom is, finally, quiet.
—Suzanne Walters M.F.A. ’04