I am not an expert in early childhood education. Ten years ago, II studied it as much as I could while I did my K-8 teaching certificate and MA in Education. I knew that I wanted to work with children in the younger age ranges in the public school system, and they are still considered under the umbrella of ECE until they are 8. I wanted to focus on the role of play within learning, and how we can teach through play.
I found out some interesting things about child development. I discovered that children construct their own learning best through play, and that just because it doesn’t look like “learning”, doesn’t mean that they aren’t learning wonderful things. I learned that natural learning takes different forms for each child, and that a rich learning environment allows for differences in learning by creating open ended tasks. Challenging and supporting young learners doesn’t come from having the best workbooks, but from having relationships with children, and small enough ratios that adults can really interact with children.
Let’s contrast two fictional first grade learning environments. In environment A, the focus is on developmentally appropriate learning, while in environment B, the focus is on having all children “meet standards”. Both groups are working on division.
Children are given collections of materials to play with (shells, keys, stones…). They spend a little while familiarizing themselves with these materials, sorting them in different ways and noticing their characteristics.
The teacher presents a task. All children count out 10 objects, and put the rest back into the box. Then the teacher challenges the students to fairly share their objects among 2 stuffed animals. The teacher interacts with the children, giving suggestions and using appropriate vocabulary. The children also help one another, problem solving together. Once the children have shared their objects among the animals, they talk about how they made their decisions. The teacher talks about how important it is to divide the items evenly. The conversation could continue to include conversations about what to do if there was one more object. What would they do? Would it be an item they could split to make it fair (fractions), or something that would have to be leftover (remainders). Students go and try it to find out. They repeat this activity with different numbers of objects and continue to explore and discuss their findings, encouraged to use the correct vocabulary by the teacher. Throughout the lesson, fast finishers are encouraged to try different strategies, and to help their peers, further solidifying their learning, while those who are struggling with the concept are having fun with the materials, and are attempting to figure it out. Most students are engaged in the task throughout, requiring few redirections from the teacher.
The teacher introduces the concept of division by talking about forming equal groups. Next she hands out a worksheet with story problems describing a situation in which children might need to divide. She models drawing the objects in equal groups and sends the children to their desks to work on the task. She then circulates and helps the children read the story problem, as many of them struggle with the wording, since they are beginning readers. Children who are waiting for help quickly get off task, requiring redirection, while fast finishers are already hard at work. The teacher continues to circulate to help students one on one. Many children are not yet ready for the abstraction of drawing to represent objects, and are frustrated at having to erase mistakes. They notice their fast finishing peers come up to the teacher to ask what they should do now that they are finished, and feel defeated because they are still struggling with the first problem. Students with learning disabilities in reading, and students who are learning English stand out. Children start trying to help each other while they wait for the teacher to get over to them, but are asked to be quite so everyone can concentrate. The teacher is frustrated as well. She has chosen this task because the children need to be able to answer these types of teaching them the technology skills as well as the actual math. She knows her kids are not quite ready for this level of abstraction, but feels trapped by the test requirements, and doesn’t think they have enough time to learn through play and discovery.
The purpose of this conversation isn’t to say that kids can’t handle the rigorous standards we are asking of them. I am trying to show that the concepts can certainly be taught to young children, and they can have fun learning them! When presented with worksheets, kids (and adults) tend to get task focused. When a child hasn’t finished a worksheet and it comes home to a parent, that parent is worried. When a task is finite and abstract, it discourages kids from thinking hard about what they are doing and why they are doing it. They tend to label themselves as “good” or “bad”, and the negative self given labels tend to stick with kids long after they have actually mastered the concepts in question.
Without the pressure of “teaching to the test”, teachers can relax, spend more time interacting with their kids doing real learning activities that build a strong foundation. With that strong foundation, when we formally introduce the abstracts, kids are ready and find it exciting and fun. Great teachers try to do this anyway, but we also know that we shouldn’t test kids in formats they haven’t practiced in, and learning format tricks is very significant for passing the current (and most likely future) standardized tests.
Finally, the attitude seems to have become “well, they are going to have to learn it soon, so we better get them used to it.” Again, when it’s open ended, hands on, and fun, it’ll probably be fine. When it’s stuff kids just are ready for and they feel the pressure of the task-based assignments, it results in a lot of stress for everyone.
Can we look at kids as individuals, and enjoy exploring learning through play with them? Fun and games aren’t ‘testable’, but teach so many skills that we truly value, more than 6-year-olds spitting out random facts they don’t understand. What do we really value in education and why aren’t we focusing on that?