Is There Hope for a Return to Common Sense in Early Childhood Education?


I have been involved in education long enough to know that, much like the children riding the painted ponies on the carousel of time in Joni Mitchell’s song "The Circle Game," educational trends often go round and round. So after years of (erroneously) pressuring early childhood programs to prepare children for college and career, perhaps we are finally seeing the light at the end of what I view as a very long and dark tunnel of developmentally inappropriate expectations and instruction for our youngest learners.

As an early childhood educator and program director and administrator from 1985 to 2013, and more recently as a blogger focused on educational issues, I have watched in disbelief as preschoolers have been pushed to acquire knowledge at younger and younger ages, using instructional methods designed for much older children. In fact, in my first post for AlterNet I decried a new federal rating system for preschools. It felt suspiciously like Race to the Top for toddlers, complete with encouragement for programs to achieve a “Gold Circle” rating by pushing their little students to “excel.”

Even its name, ExceleRate, was painful to me. It seemed like the goal was simply to force children to learn more and to learn it faster — which runs entirely contrary to actual scholarly research, which supports the continuum of child development unfolding at its own rate. Aticles like Erica Christakis’ recent piece in The Atlantic, The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids, illustrate how the lunacy of the current educational climate has hurt our preschoolers. Instead of learning through exploration and free play, our young kids are filling in worksheets in teacher-directed and controlled environments. 

As Christakis points out, “now that kindergarten serves as a gatekeeper, not a welcome mat, to elementary school, concerns about school preparedness kick in earlier and earlier. A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool. As a result, expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful.”

As Lisa Miller recently reported in New York Magazine, the result of this inappropriate approach to educating young learners has been a disaster. A study at Vanderbilt University showed that the Tennessee state pre-K program was an epic fail. Children in these classes were judged to be less curious, verbal and engaged in learning since STEM and deadly direct instruction were marched into our preschools. By first grade, these young learners were turned off. They disliked school and learned far less than children who were permitted to learn through play and exploration.

The Vanderbilt study reveals that the push down of inappropriate curriculum and teaching methods to preschool has little to recommend it. Meanwhile, other studies have shown that state-sponsored pre-K can be of great benefit (the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project) — if learning is approached as it should be. As Miller notes,

“…good programs look a lot less like the rote-learning, test-focused elementary schools those kids are being ‘prepared’ for and a lot more like the naïve sandbox ideal of preschool as a place to encourage a certain kind of structured, imaginative play. To be even more pointed: The best government-pre-K classrooms don’t resemble remedial education designed to bring impoverished 3-year-olds up to speed; they look like the progressive places most rich Americans have been sending their kids to for generations.”

Everything Old Is New Again

Over the past decade, early childhood education has been sucked into the worst aspects of our standards-based, test-centered approach to education. But now, there may be some hope of returning to what preschool educators know is best for young children.

Debbie Boileve, director of Cherry Preschool in Evanston, Illinois, recently attended the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a leading accrediting agency for early childhood programs. She returned filled with optimism that this respected organization was moving back to the hands-on, play-based learning that embraces the principles of child development outlined by respected experts like Jean Piaget, whose theory is still regarded as the key to understanding how children think and learn.

According to Boileve, a few years ago, NAEYC conferences were all about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). The next step was STEAM, adding the A for art into the equation. But at the recent conference, Boileve noted, STREAM was all the rage. What does the R stand for? Relationships. While early childhood teachers are still expected to document learning standards, there is a renewed acknowledgment that social and emotional learning is essential, and that relationships among children and between children and their teachers are critical to true learning.

Examples of this shift include the use of what Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky, both professors of early childhood education, call Loose Parts. In their book of the same name, they illustrate how bins of materials that come with no directions inspire young children to create works of amazing art and feats of sophisticated engineering. These open-ended materials encourage creativity and imagination and can be manipulated any way a child desires. Examples of loose parts include stones, buttons, PVC pipes, corks, scarves, spools, sea shells, pipe cleaners…the possibilities are endless.

The innovative toy company Kodo Kids has picked up on the idea, and had displays at the NAEYC conference that included magnetic walls, timber stackers, ramps, and pumps that help fulfill the company’s mission of enriching the lives of children. Hands-on experiences playing with exciting and open-ended materials encourage children to work together and think creatively.

And it’s not as if embracing the sandbox means jettisoning every vestige of technology and math; we just have to rethink the approach. For example: rather than seating a child at a computer station to play didactic educational games, children can learn programming in far more creative ways — like by drawing patterns with markers to guide robots, or, working in groups, using blocks to create pathways for their robots to follow. This way, children see technology as a tool rather than as a closed activity with right and wrong answers.

The hope is that teachers will still be able to address learning standards, but do so using developmentally appropriate methods. By asking open-ended questions, allowing the children’s interests to guide their learning, and eliminating teacher-directed and pre-planned curriculum, early childhood educators will be able to forge a path to the future that combines innovation with best practice.

For as far as we’ve come, it’s clear that child-centered, hands-on, project based learning is still the coin of the realm when it comes to building active, engaged learners. No matter how you slice it, children who learn through play  — at their own pace, dictated by their own interests, and in a relationship-rich environment — remain the key to our future. Let’s hope this new/old movement can finally take root once again.

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