The other day I was in an early childhood classroom. Not unusual, it’s a place where I have been frequently, in one role or another, for over 40 years – as a student, volunteer, teacher, director, coach, assessor, parent and grandparent.
My first-ever early childhood classroom experience was Mrs. Bean’s Nursery School and Kindergarten. I was almost four. From time to time I’ll think back to that first experience (what I can remember of it) comparing/contrasting the “now” and “then.” And the “now” is ever-changing as time marches on–for the most part.
For example, I don’t remember dittos and worksheets. I’m not saying specifically we didn’t have them, but I certainly don’t remember them. What do I still remember? For one thing, I remember that cotton comes from a plant, wool comes from a sheep and–this was the real mind-blower–silk comes from a worm! Wow! (I’ll also admit these were simpler times before synthetic fibers.) What made it so memorable? We could see, touch and feel! Well, there were only photos of the animals, but we saw them, and could handle the cotton boll and the plant, the “just shorn” wool, and the silk thread and fabric. We could put our hands on them. We could share them and talk about them. We could relate it to our own experience. (Sewing was big in our household.)
Since best practices in early childhood education were first collectively addressed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in their Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) adopted in 1986, the landscape of the field has changed significantly. What we used to believe was good practice was based mainly on tradition and instinct. With the help of science and long-range studies we now have data on which to base our practice. To adapt to and accommodate these changes DAP has been revised three times, most recently in 2009, though the principles of child-centered learning have remained at the heart of DAP. Mrs. Bean had the right idea all along!
Today it’s wonderful to see early childhood on the radar of funders and legislators, but with that come standards of performance and accountability for all of us–children, teachers, parents and the funders and legislators. As we strive to meet standards and be accountable, it is essential to base our decisions and practices on what that science and research tells us. Children learn best in child-centered environments with individually- and age-appropriate, meaningful, hands-on learning.
Not every activity and experience we provide in our classrooms will pass the “Mrs. Bean test,” but I hope some of mine have. And, it’s a vital thought to have in our minds as we plan our curriculum. What’s really going to be significant and make an impact?
Oh, and thank you, Mrs. Bean. You had good instincts.