Walk into Sandi Eisig’s preschool classroom at the Sherman ECC at Congregation Har Shalom and it’s likely you will find a small group of toddlers sitting on the floor and handling cockroaches. Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, to be exact.
The insects, about the size of the children’s hands, are part of the curriculum of the preschool’s science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics education program, STEAM for short.
In other lessons, the students, between 18 months and 5 years old, paint using brushes attached to power drills, and build things with hammers and nails. It may sound like a recipe for disaster, but Eisig says it’s all about the experience.
“STEAM is a new way of thinking. It gives the students a more hands-on approach and more control over what they’re learning,” Eisig says. “I don’t stick to one curriculum or idea.”
The program is in its second year. The preschool’s 60 children take turns using the STEAM classroom throughout the week.
STEAM differs from the better-known STEM, in that STEAM includes the arts.
Beth Hoch, the director of early childhood education at Conservative synagogue, says the school switched to STEAM after the synagogue decided it wanted to offer a full-day education program, rather than morning preschool and afternoon daycare.
That’s where Eisig comes in. She takes the kids, in groups of five or six, and leads them in exploratory play, takes them outside and teaches them about whatever topics they or she finds interesting. The activities are often messy, she adds.
“My ideas come from research on different topics. The internet is a fantastic way to go. [The class] starts with a concept. Everybody makes a lot of mistakes. It’s very exploratory. They can touch everything.”
And it’s not difficult to factor Judaism into the mix, Eisig says. She gets the children to explore the themes and ideas behind each holiday, and create a project or activity around that concept.
“During Passover, we made bricks out of mud and hay. We put it together and built our own temple wall. During Rosh Hashanah we go into the life cycle of an apple tree: where the fruit comes from and what the stages are,” she says.
They go outside, observe nature, play with class pets, and squish around at the mud, water and oatmeal tables.
The cockroaches were suggested by a friend of Eisig’s.
“We have 4- and 5-year-olds who are all involved in touching [the bugs]. The 2-year-olds have no fear. They are so excited every time [the cockroaches] come out.”
The classroom has had a number of other animal guests, including baby chicks, caterpillars and tadpoles. Eisig always encourages her students to explore as far as they can go, especially hands on.
“It’s a great investment in their future,” Eisig says, “and gives them more control over what they’re doing.”