Learning in the Sandbox: Early Childhood at its Best

When my son Michael was little, he attended Playhouse, a progressive cooperative preschool.

There he was the most engaged when he was able to create an activity on his own.

One spring day, Michael brought a small plastic white leopard to school. During outdoor playground time, he developed a game where over and over again he would bury the leopard and then find it and dig it up. On his third round of “bury and excavate,” the leopard seemed to disappear. Michael grew more and more frustrated, especially when it was announced that it was time to go back into the classroom.

Authentic learning is messy, and it may involve expanded time for play, investigation, and reflection.

Rather than dismiss his concern, the teachers sat down with Michael and tried to understand his feelings and come up with a potential solution. Instead of digging around randomly in the sandbox, they asked him to think about what an archaeologist might do in this case. They shared that archaeologists often excavate to find things and that perhaps they could use a grid method to make the process easier. They turned a very difficult situation into a teachable moment, and they helped Michael to redirect his focus away from being frustrated to concentrating on making a grid out of the sandbox. The process was tedious, but the reward was enormous. Michael appreciated that his concerns were taken seriously and that the teachers were listening to him. It didn’t hurt that he found the leopard, too!

In early childhood classrooms, learning looks different than it does in elementary schools. The teachers understand that child-centered curriculum and instruction require an atmosphere where adults and children need to know one another well and develop trust.

An emergent curriculum reflects the values of caring and social change, encourages children to think critically about the world in which they live, and talk back to it. Teachers strive to create a classroom community that is a safe space where students not only can show support for one another, but also question and disrupt the norms of society and imagine a community that accepts others. This is a space where all children and teachers are valued and can speak freely, listen actively, dream, invent, and imagine.

Teachers understand that no two children are alike and therefore are open to the idea that the ways they approach a problem will differ. When students’ curiosity becomes the driving force of the curriculum, then the role of the teacher becomes one of coach, who provides materials, asks provocative questions, and encourages children to make decisions about their own learning.

Authentic learning is messy, and it may involve expanded time for play, investigation, and reflection. Ultimately, in a child-centered classroom, anything and everything has the potential to be explored.

Although we are aware of the importance and value of constructivist early childhood classrooms for all children, as Gallo-Fox and Cuccuini-Harmon point out in their article “The Non-Tested Years: Policy’s Impact on Early Childhood Curriculum,” standards and accountability policies continue to create tensions between early childhood and elementary curriculum, imposing teacher-directive approaches that focus on academic and test preparation, and significantly impact the voice and role of early childhood educators.

With an increased focus on academics, this shift has also increased the number of children at risk for failure due to poverty, race, or disability because their classroom behaviors do not align with school expectations. Gallo-Fox and Cuccuini-Harmon provide an insightful window into the constraints of policy on early childhood instruction and also the possibility of supporting rich learning environments that foster the success of all young learners.


Dr. Monica Taylor

Today’s blogger is Monica Taylor, a Professor at Montclair State University, Academic Editor of The Educational Forum, and author of Playhouse: Optimistic Stories of Real Hope for Families With Little Children (Garn Press, 2017). She comments on the recently published article “The Non-Tested Years: Policy’s Impact on Early Childhood Curriculum,” which appears in the latest issue of The Educational Forum.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through December 31, 2018.

 

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