A group of about 20 Christopher House preschoolers are sitting as quietly as they can in front of their teacher, Jill Peterson. She’s just asked them to put their fingers on their nose and is waiting for the group to settle down before dismissing them to play time.
She reminds them what their options are today: at the art table, there’s clay. Because the class has been spending quite a bit of time talking about food, and cooking, she encourages the children to shape the clay into pretend food.
But this isn’t just ordinary play. The kids in this class range from age three to five, but are already focusing on activities that develop both sides of the brain.
Allen Rosales is the school’s curriculum director. From his point of view, the school isn’t doing its job unless it prepares the children for work - and life.
“What’s math knowledge if you can’t speak up, if you can’t have a perspective, if you can’t work as a group collaboratively?” Rosales asked. “That’s what we’re trying to do here, incorporate both - the academic and the soft skills.”
Still, as Rosales points out, those “soft” skills aren’t so soft because they’re difficult to develop.
Hard skills are pretty self-explanatory: math, science and reading. Soft skills are more squishy concept, but it’s still a catch-all phrase you hear often from business leaders to describe what’s lacking among their workers.
Chicago businessman J.B. Pritzker attempts to explain.
“Collectively, these are things we sometimes refer to as character,” said Pritzker, co-leader of The Pritkzer Group. “The ability to listen, the ability to concentrate, to complete a task, to be persistent about things, attentiveness.”
These are are the kind of skills you learn best when you’re young - very young - which is why Pritzker said he’s become an advocate for early childhood education.
“The quality of our workforce is declining, and it’s because we are not as advanced as other countries are at early childhood development,” he said.
That’s backed up by people like Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman at the University of Chicago. His decades-long research shows that investing in low-income children before Kindergarten can have a big pay-off down the road.
Traditionally, businesses have tended to focus their philanthropic efforts on K-12 education. But PNC Bank is another group that’s also starting to back more early education efforts. The bank has given more than $350 million nationally to this - about $3 million in Chicago.
“We’re concerned about this obviously from a customer perspective, but from a community perspective,” said PNC Illinois Chairman Joe Gregoire. “The better we do as relates to early childhood development, the better our communities will be. Hopefully we’ll have more students going to college and from that perspective, a better workforce.”
Right now funding for pre-K comes from a couple of different places, like the federal Head Start. But even then, around 30 percent of low-income families who are eligible for the program don’t use it.
Another problem is the quality of early childhood education across Illinois.
“In Illinois, the only criteria for establishing a child care program is that you have a license, and the license is built mostly around safety and nutrition and things like that and not around education,” said Erikson Institute faculty co-founder Barbara Bowman, also the former head of Chicago’s early childhood education program.
Bowman said that makes programs like the one at Christopher House are more the ideal than the norm.
Lots of preschools incorporate structured playtime. But at Christopher House the teacher and two aides use playtime to help nurture soft skills one-on-one.
Back at play time, Peterson - who has two well-trained aides also working with other children - is sitting at the table with the children playing with clay. One little girl has molded her clay into what she says is a spicy jalapeno pizza cookies.
Peterson gently nudges the child to provide a recipe for how she made her pizza. Peterson writes it all down.
Rosales, standing nearby, explains how the recipes reinforces notions of first, second, last, as well as following directions. The exercises are designed to nurture the child’s creativity, and teachers like Peterson also encourage independent thinking - all key foundations for these soft skills.
Illinois just received a $35 million federal grant to unify what the state itself calls a “patchwork” of early learning programs. It’s also designed to help connect low-income families with programs like Christopher House, which already has a waiting list.
In the meantime, business leaders like Pritzker are nudging this along on their own. For him, it’s simple economics.
“I know there are people who are going to think to themselves, ‘Soft skills, you mean learning those basic things that every kid probably should learn, attentiveness, is going to affect whether the United States is going to be the leader of the world 20 years from now?’ My answer is ‘yes’.”
Because 20 years from now, he said, this class of preschoolers at Christopher House - and their classmates from all across the city - will be the one’s he’s hiring.