It can all be summed up in a single question posed to me by a mom while we were spending a lovely morning at our community garden, “Why did you go?”
This February will mark two years since I was employed on-site in an early childhood center – AKA, preschool.
In my time away, being a mama has forced me to take a new perspective on many things in my life. I think I was curious if it had done the same to me regarding early schooling.
I now live in small Californian agricultural community. There are many preschools in town, but none that explain their philosophy in social constructivist terms. I’ve been wondering, for some time, what I can expect from a “traditional” approach to early childhood learning, as I have never worked in a school that takes this approach.
The Yin & Yang of Early Childhood Education
Early childhood education is, and has been, traveling simultaneously down two separate paths of learning approaches. Down one road (in my mind, this one is paved with clearly marked stop signs and pedestrian crossings) is the traditional or academic approach. Learning rudimentary facts about colors, shapes, the ABCs, 123s, and the calendar are the markers by which learning is measured. Down the other road (in my mind, a dirt path that crosses a creek or two) is the learning-through-play approach, or progressive education. Learning how to think, ask questions, and seek answers about things that you are interested in is how learning is done. This path is less clearly marked, with milestones of learning varying from child to child or group to group.
The Tried and True
An academic approach to early childhood education, I think, is the standard way classrooms approach education. I do imagine things have changed over the years in light of research that supports young children learning through play. I do not often see dittos in preschool, but I do still see a stress on learning facts.
This is the way I remember learning in my early years, and it’s the way many of us spent our “learning years” throughout our education. The academic approach is respected for its commitment to readying children for grade school.
Now, with our local moms group’s preschool reconvening after the holiday, I decided to try and put my expectations aside and see what Greysen would look like in that setting.
First Preschool Visit
This morning, we attended a preschool group hosted by a group of moms I belong to. More committed, loving moms I’ve never met. I felt so welcomed and genuinely listened to that I can not express my gratitude for the experience enough.
The activities were age-appropriate, carefully set up, and thoughtfully planned. Greysen spent time at each of the three tables – play dough, practical life, and a craft table. Here, she is using the Montessori planned activities. I will absolutely try some of these at home.
Learning, Learning and More Learning
The group leader and her daughter gathered us to an eventful Circle Time. Greysen dutifully sat at the edge of the rug between her besties, C & L, and focused on the mom/teacher. We sang a “hello” song, during which the children jumped into the circle and chose their name from among all the children’s names that each mom had hand written on a piece of colored felt. Greysen’s was written with her first name on a green circle that she had chosen. After each child had a turn picking out their name, the children returned their felt to the center, where they were lined up and counted in English, then Spanish, then backwards. Then a letter box was passed around with things that started with the letter of the week, “K.” Each child had a chance to pull out things from the box and show the group.
Cut to a social constructivist school, where children construct their own knowledge. That is, they make the choices as to what they are learning. Children are gathered together some on the floor some on a couch listening to other children’s ideas. In this classroom children are not merely the focus of learning they lead.
Be it about space or flowers, their learning is their own, as opposed to subjects being chosen because of the time of year or tradition. Symbols like the 123s and ABCs are learned, but when it is meaningful and relevant to the child. Learning letters is not done because a teacher decides it to be so but rather when it is meaningful to the child. Children become interested in symbols to communicate ideas and want to learn to write to remember their ideas or share them. Facts, like colors, are learned through experience and play, and not taught in a setting with the children as the audience and an adult at the helm.
I have no doubt that traditional activities result in learning. However, less transparent is what exactly children come to understand from these activities. When reciting numbers, a common traditional teaching practice, it’s hard to tell whether children understand that 10 is more than two. In an example of learning through play, numeracy becomes very meaningful when a classroom vote is taken and tallied, determining whether children should go outside or stay inside.
Back at the preschool visit: We then stood and gathered in a circle and sang a song that had the months of the year and then a classic tune – “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” We played in this manner for the better part of an hour. The morning went on from there, and I wondered what Greysen retained from these experiences. What will she learn from these experiences over time? Most importantly to me, how was she learning?
We came home and sat on our patio, finishing the lunches we pecked at during preschool. We changed diapers and lingered in the warm midday sun. Moon inspected a pine cone, while Greysen climbed in and out of her car, telling me “good bye.”
I brought some paint out and prepared the easel, which she was eager to get at. Greysen and Moon painted and played for the better part of an hour. For the second time this morning, I found myself wondering, what did Greysen retain from this experience? What will she learn from these experiences over time?
Two approaches, two paths, and two ways to get where you want to go. When it comes to school settings, I am less concerned with my daughters learning how to give the right answer, and more occupied with them learning how to ask questions. Learning about your interests and spending time in work or play is how adults live when time is their own, and why should children’s lives be spent any differently?