The Education of Young Children

playIn last week’s Politics of Reading class, we spent time discussing what is developmentally appropriate for young children in light of the new push for academic achievement and preparation for standardized testing.  We watched a video of a particular American kindergarten class, with its focus on enhanced academic achievement, and contrasted it with a particular Japanese kindergarten with a focus on exploration and play.

That put me in mind of my own experience of looking for a preschool for my own children, when they were 3 and 4 years old.  I called and visited many of them, coming across many kinds of preschools.  In many preschools there were simply too many children per teacher.  And often it seemed teachers had little training or education in best practices for young children.  I even encountered one preschool that took pride in having 3- and 4-year-olds spend time every day on worksheets.  Eventually I found a preschool that was high quality and child-centered, and felt like the right fit for us.  It was accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

NAEYC is dedicated to the promotion of high quality and developmentally appropriate education for young children from birth to age 8.  In its Key Messages of the Position Statement, NAEYC says

• Both child-guided and teacher-guided experiences are vital to children’s development and learning. Developmentally appropriate programs provide substantial periods of time when children may select activities to pursue from among the rich choices teachers have prepared in various centers in the room. In addition to these activities, children ages 3–8 benefit from planned, teacher-guided, interactive small-group and large- group experiences.

Rather than diminishing children’s learning by reducing the time devoted to academic activities, play promotes key abilities that enable children to learn successfully. In high- level dramatic play, for example, the collaborative planning of roles and scenarios and the impulse control required to stay within the play’s constraints develop children’s self-regulation, symbolic thinking, memory, and language—capacities critical to later learning, social competence, and school success.

• Because of how they spend their time outside of school, many young children now lack the ability to play at the high level of complexity and engagement that affords so many cognitive, social, and emotional benefits. As a result, it is vital for early childhood settings to provide opportunities for sustained high-level play and for teachers to actively support children’s progress toward such play.

Every day, my children played indoors and outside, in all kinds of weather.  They played with sand, clay, water, blocks, puppets, dolls, dress-up clothes, paint, buckets, and mud.  They dug canals and dams with shovels and running water from garden hoses.  They read stories and sang songs.  That sounds like cheerful anarchy that doesn’t require adults, but in truth they were guided and watched over at every moment.  It was a cooperative preschool that required parents to spend a day working with the children every two weeks, and I was always amazed at what their curriculum covered, and how much they did and learned, each time.  They never, ever, filled out a worksheet or took a test, but my children learned and grew every single day.

NAEYC promotes high standards and continuing education for teachers as well as increased compensation.  In direct contrast to the continuing push for increased push for standardization, NAEYC states that “Recognizing teacher knowledge and decision making [is] vital to educational effectiveness”:

“Expert decision making lies at the heart of effective teaching. The acts of teaching and learning are too complex and individual to prescribe a teacher’s every move in advance. Children benefit most from teachers who have the skills, knowledge, and judgment to make good decisions and are given the opportunity to use them.”

The teachers at my children’s preschool were all dedicated, loving, extremely hard-working, and college-educated.  Some had graduate degrees.  All took part in continuing early-childhood education training.

The downside of this kind of high-quality preschool was that it was very expensive (although truthfully all child care is expensive).  It also did not offer a full day of care, and every-day care (Monday through Friday) was only available for older preschoolers.  That meant that one parent from every family would not be able to work full-time, making it an even more expensive option that many families would not be able to afford.

In its longer Position Statement, NAEYC observes that

“Given the shortage of affordable, high-quality programs for children under 5 and the low compensation for those staff, advocates see potential benefits to having more 4-year-olds, and perhaps even 3-year- olds, receive services in publicly funded schooling….

At the same time, however, preschool educators have some fears about the prospect of the K–12 system absorbing or radically reshaping education for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, especially at a time when pressures in public schooling are intense and often run counter to the needs of young children. Many early childhood educators are already quite concerned about the current climate of increased high-stakes testing adversely affecting children in grades K–3, and they fear extension of these effects to even younger children.”

Public preschool would help solve the problem of expensive child care, and good programs might help very young children from lower-income families get on a more equal academic footing (with Head Start-type programs) compared to children from wealthier families, but as we have seen, standardized testing in education and early, inappropriate academic pressure disproportionately affects children from lower-income families.  In a misguided  attempt to close the achievement gap (without addressing the underlying socioeconomic gap), schools and teachers in low-income areas are increasingly expected to parrot an academic script created by for-profit companies.  Meanwhile, well-heeled families have the resources to put or keep their children in schools with smaller class sizes, and that emphasize teacher-student relationships, creativity, and exploration.  The gap continues.

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