By Lydia Acchione Spinelli, Ed.D.
When children at The Brick Church School embark on their first school experience at age 3, they most likely venture forth from secure home environments where they are rightly the center of their worlds. From Jean Piaget, we know that children this age are cognitively egocentric, lacking the mental structures to see things from another's point of view. The most important and most challenging task for the early childhood educator is to help the child to learn to function as a member of a group, to begin to understand the rights and needs of others. As a Church school, this is particularly important at Brick.
This goal of social development is inextricably intertwined with the child's emotional development. Meaningful interaction with others depends upon a secure sense of self. We, therefore, strive to enhance the children's self-confidence through appreciation of their efforts in all areas and through a concerted effort to develop their independence so that they feel control over themselves and their environment. Home is not geared entirely towards children because it must also meet the needs of the adults who live there. We learned from Maria Montessori that a carefully ordered classroom environment allows the children to function independently.
Keeping materials in specific places allows the children to find them without teacher assistance. Children learn to care for their own physical needs, to choose meaningful activities, and to assume responsibility for care of their classroom.
During the 1940s and 1950s, goals for a child's development centered around social, emotional and physical aspects. Sigmund Freud believed that an emotionally stable foundation would pave the way for later intellectual development, and therefore it should not be part of early childhood education.
Research in the 1960s caused a shift in emphasis towards cognitive development because it was discovered that children were receptive to considerable learning in the early years. The debate continues. Some schools do not believe in addressing cognitive development, while others overemphasize academic tasks and teach children as if they were in elementary school. However, more and more 21st century scientific evidence confirms the influence of early childhood experiences in shaping the circuits of the developing brain so it makes no sense for early childhood schools to ignore cognitive development.
Fortunately, we do not have to choose between cognitive, physical and social-emotional development as curriculum goals since there is nothing mutually exclusive about them as long as we encourage intellectual development in an age-appropriate manner. Learning enhances the child's self-esteem and learning with others through active manipulation of materials enhances social development.
Having accepted cognitive growth as a goal of early childhood education, the question remains as to how children learn most effectively. From the time of the Ancient Greeks and probably before, there has been a debate among educators as to whether knowledge exists within the child and needs to be drawn out (Plato, Augustine, Rousseau, Emerson) or whether reality exists independent of our knowledge and the child must therefore be taught (Aristotle, Erasmus, Locke). During the 20th century, the argument continued between advocates of a child-centered approach and advocates of a curriculum-centered approach to education.
John Dewey is often associated with the child-centered approach but this is because of a misinterpretation of his philosophy by many of his progressive followers. Dewey himself believed that if you are totally child centered, in the beginning there is the child and in the end there is the child. The only way to bring children to maturity is through the curriculum and the only way to make the curriculum interesting is through children. For Dewey the question of education is to take hold of the children's interests and activities and give them direction. Repressing children's interest deadens intellectual curiosity but humoring interests substitutes the transient for the permanent. The interest is always the sign of some power below; the important thing is to discover this power.
A related debate in the educational world is whether it is best to teach children discrete skills or involve them in integrated, holistic project work. In teaching beginning reading, the debate focuses on phonics versus whole language. At The Brick Church School, we believe in combining both approaches because children learn in different ways and either approach used exclusively could leave some children with gaps in their learning.
If all learning were to take place through discovery, progress would be slow and some children might miss important skills. On the other hand, if no learning takes place through project work, school would be less interesting and meaningful. Applying skills in solving problems or doing an integrated study in science or social studies solidifies children's understanding and helps children to see the need for acquiring skills.
To work on skill development, children of age four and older have a period of the day called dot time (usually a half hour) where their choices are restricted within a particular area. Math, language arts, and fine motor materials are color-coded and the children work within that particular color, so they would be given the math color one day, the language arts color another, and the fine motor color another. This assures that the children devote adequate attention to these important areas and gives the teacher the opportunity to work with children in small groups.
The project approach of Reggio Emilia, Italy has greatly influenced The Brick Church School.Project work, and documentation of the children's engagement throughout a unit of study, provides children with an opportunity to build on what they already know, and to develop increasingly complex ideas and understandings as a result. The skills they develop allow them to investigate those fascinating topics in greater depth. Working on skills and working on projects can go hand in hand in the early childhood years. For instance, the child makes a diorama for a classroom "museum." The wish to make a sign describing it for visitors to the "museum" spurs the desire to learn to write. The desire to use certain skills in real life situations combined with some work on those skills in isolation is the perfect combination. A balance between project work and skill work ensures that all children's learning styles are accommodated. The ideal is when the "dot time" activity directly relates to a project that the children are excited about.
In Education and the Social Order, Bertrand Russell speaks of the necessity to provide the appropriate mixture of freedom and discipline:
The capacity for consistent self-direction is one of the most valuable that a human being can possess. It is practically unknown in young children, and is never developed either by a very rigid discipline or by complete freedom. Very rigid discipline, such as that of soldiers in war-time, makes a man incapable of acting without the goad of external command. On the other hand, complete freedom throughout childhood does not teach him to resist the solicitations of a momentary impulse: he does not acquire the capacity of concentrating upon one matter when he is interested in another, or of resisting pleasures because they will cause fatigue that will interfere with subsequent work. The strengthening of the will depends, therefore, on a somewhat subtle mixture of freedom and discipline, and is destroyed by an excess of either. (p. 24)
At The Brick Church School, we encourage the subtle mixture of freedom and discipline. The children have the freedom to choose what they want to do during part of the day, but no matter the choice, they must respect the rights of others, an important learning experience for children of this age. They can only learn to make meaningful choices if given the freedom to choose. Since they are intrinsically motivated to learn, they tend to choose materials that most meet their needs.
Whether the activity is teacher-directed or chosen by the child, our goal is active engagement of the child in learning. William James in Talks to Teachers reminds us that attending is an act of will. He talks of voluntary attention, saying that a moral act "consists in the effort of the attention by which we hold fast to an idea which but for that effort of attention would be driven out of the mind by the other psychological tendencies that are there." (p. 126)
The teacher holds the children's attention by starting with their interests, assessing their developmental levels, and aiming the activity just slightly above their current capabilities. (Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development). If the activity is too far above their present level, they may be frustrated, feel pressured, and lose interest; if it is too easy, the children may be less engaged. To achieve the perfect level is a challenge met by considerable knowledge of child development, curriculum, and keen powers of observation.
The use of the word "activity" is quite deliberate, because learning at this age usually involves activity. From the research of Jean Piaget, we know that young children learn best through the direct manipulation of concrete objects. Since children of this age have such a high energy level, active learning is actually a necessity. Many are physically unable to sit still for long periods of time.
Language, which is a symbol for direct experience, should follow rather than precede the experience in order to be meaningful. Adults are often impressed to hear children speak of advanced concepts and use sophisticated vocabulary. This is a less efficient use of the child's time since he or she can spout language with no real understanding of the underlying concepts. It is better to give children abundant age-appropriate experience and offer them the corresponding language for it. The conversational skills of listening, taking turns and responding are also given considerable emphasis.
At The Brick Church School, we strive to provide children with developmentally appropriate activities, to help them acquire good work habits, to improve gross and fine motor skills, and most importantly, to help them to understand the rights and needs of others as they develop a strong and healthy sense of self.