Preschool sure has changed. And Karen Szillat is helping to lead that change so today’s preschoolers can grow into tomorrow’s caring and informed adults. I thought preschoolers learned colors, played in the sandbox, and maybe had a book read to them, but Karen Szillat learned early on as a babysitter how soon in life children learn to imitate adults, and she has taken advantage of that knowledge in her Early Childhood Education career to teach children how to grow up questioning and caring about others. What the children in her classes have learned has not only amazed me, but I think it will amaze every parent, teacher, grandparent, and childcare provider, all of whom need to read this book.
I won’t go into all twelve of the universal values Szillat discusses in this book as vital for children to succeed in life, but I will touch on a few of the amazing ideas and lessons that stood out for me. Most amazing of all is Karen’s commitment to children. She has been in Early Childhood Education for twenty years as a teacher, consultant, and administrator and worked with children in Illinois, Wisconsin, California, and Washington state as well as in Germany. In Empowering the Children, she states, “I want to teach young children to be considerate, kind, compassionate, peaceful, respectful, focused, busy, and happy explorers. I want them to become children who are aware of their emotions and able to express them appropriately in addition to listening to another person’s point of view. I want them to become children who are interested in solving problems and not frightened of trying.”
Karen covers so many topics in this book that it is hard to pick only a couple to focus on here. Among them are teaching children about gun safety, environmental issues and respecting the earth (through simple methods such as reusing scrap paper). She also touches on bullying and ways to stand up to bullies (not by fighting but by verbalizing feelings and reasoning with bullies). Before she teaches something, Karen asks kids what they already know about the topic so she can decide where to begin and clear up any misconceptions they might have. She has managed to encourage children to be curious and to pay attention to the world around them. It is not uncommon for the children in her classes to read the newspaper and bring in stories that concern them — from oil spills to babies who need to visit dentists. The children’s social concerns stood out for me the most in the book.
The most fascinating and heartwarming experience in Empowering the Children for me was how Karen and her co-teacher, Jessica, introduced the children to the topic of homeless people, first by reading them a story, then discussing the subject (most of the children had already seen homeless people on the street), and then inviting a homeless person to visit them in the classroom. This last decision was not only very brave on Karen’s part, but it broke down a lot of misconceptions and became a wonderful experience for the children. Isaiah, their homeless visitor, opened their eyes to what homelessness is like in most surprising ways. Karen states:
I think Isaiah’s positive self-esteem was good for the children to see. He told them, “Sometimes life is hard, but you try hard and follow your dreams.” He didn’t feel sorry for himself or make himself seem incapable of having a positive, happy life. In fact, he seemed to expect it and radiated joy. I also liked that he was personable and fun with the children; they loved him and thought he was very funny. I hope they will remember their friend who sleeps outside in a sleeping bag and eats at soup kitchens.
Nor was Isaiah’s visit forgotten. He visited the kids a few more times, even bringing two candy canes for each child, telling the children to give the spare to another child not in the classroom because he wanted the children to know, “The best thing about presents is giving them.”
Beyond becoming aware of others, the children in Karen’s class seek to raise awareness about various issues and they help and encourage others to do the same. For example, the children created a play about Tsunamis and they raised money through the play to support World Vision, so they could buy animals and tools to help people in other countries.
One final strength of this book I want to mention is how Karen teaches children to work out their problems and empower themselves. One of the most moving moments in the book for me happened when a four-year-old girl interfered when two friends were arguing. She asked the two angry friends, “Do you really want to start a war?” They stopped arguing, said “No!” and hugged each other.
I was completely stunned, impressed, and perhaps it would not be too much of a stretch to say overjoyed by what Karen has taught the children in her care. I truly believe if we have more teachers like Karen and more children being empowered as individuals and taught to care about one another, there is hope that the world will be a better place, and in the very near future.
For more information about Karen Szillat and Empowering the Children, visit the author’s website.