What If? Teaching Young Children Skills for Their Whole Lives
When we plant a tree, we don’t expect to wake up the next morning, or even the next week, month or year, and see a strong trunk, with high branches, beautiful leaves and delicious fruit. When we plant a tree, we are counting on time and optimal conditions to grow and nurture it, so that it can bear fruit for generations to come. We just need to be patient.
So too with our youngest learners. Teachers often refer to the teaching time they have in the classroom as time to prepare the children in their care for the following grade. They see time in terms of periods, classes, semesters and school years. As an early childhood educator, I’d like to propose an alternative. The teaching that we do is not preparing the children for the following grade, but rather for a promising and fulfilling educational future. If we are able to step back and take a broader view, we can change the way we think about education and become passionate, master educators who are setting up our youngest learners, not for tomorrow, but for life.
The most essential principle in early childhood education is a full and deep understanding of Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP). According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), DAP is a framework designed to promote young children’s optimal learning and development. To make decisions that reflect best practices, educators take into consideration what they know about child development and learning, each child as an individual, and each child’s social and cultural context.
The knowledge of these three components are critical when planning not only curriculum for young children, but for creating an optimal environment in which effective learning can take place. If we don’t understand child development and what typical children should be expected to do at each age, and we don’t take the time to really get to know our students as individuals, including where they come from culturally, we cannot expect to plan appropriately for them. The knowledge and application of DAP by our teachers is essential to the success of our children. By contrast, requiring pre-schoolers to sit behind desks and complete rote workbooks and worksheets shows a complete lack of understanding or application of DAP.
Why is it then that skilled and trained educators succumb to external pressure to push skills down earlier and earlier, expecting children to master concepts that they are not yet developmentally ready to learn? What if every educator remembered their training and put the children first and gave them the time they needed to grow and mature in developmentally appropriate ways? What if the disregard for DAP is related to the unprecedented rise in mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and even suicide among young people?
Children are being diagnosed, or misdiagnosed, with ADHD, behavior issues and learning disabilities at an alarming rate and at earlier ages. What if we remembered that children are just that, children? What if we could solve some of these frightening mental health trends by giving our youngest learners the gift of time and letting preschoolers and kindergartners do what they are supposed to do and learn how they learn best—through play and meaningful, hands-on experiences, not through workbooks, worksheets and inappropriate expectations?
It is a dream of mine to spend less time speaking with parents about teaching reading and writing, memorizing facts and figures, and making sure that children are “prepared” for first grade. I wish I could hear fewer parents asking when their children are going to read and more parents asking how their early childhood experience is going to lay the foundation for their success in school, their social and emotional well-being, and their mastery of the skills needed to become a future leader of our world.
Parents should be asking if their child shared, compromised, solved a problem, brainstormed, collaborated, created, experimented, investigated, designed, built, communicated, wondered, questioned, explored, sang, danced, imagined, dreamed, not if they memorized. So many essential skills and brain connections are made through meaningful interactions with a purposeful, intentional, child-centered environment filled with rich opportunities to be exposed to a myriad of multisensory experiences. The early childhood years are exactly the time when the young brain is ready to absorb everything it needs for a bright, promising and joyful tomorrow—but only if it is done right.
What if we were truly in the “business” of education for the long-term outcome, not to see the product of our hard work here and now, but actually investing in the future of our youngest learners? What if lighting that spark in each child to pursue his or her passions, to explore, to create, to question, to think, to make connections, wasn’t for now, but was for 20-plus years from now? What if the seeds that we are planting today in creating self-confident, enthusiastic learners could be actually quantified in high school, college and beyond?
Let’s stop with the preschool assessments and the pressure to meet academic goals earlier. Rather, let’s create an optimum environment in which our children can learn, grow and thrive. Let’s not prepare our children for the following grade and pass them along to the next teacher. Let’s change the paradigm of education to create classrooms and schools that capitalize on the time that they have to optimize our learning environments and truly lay the foundation for lifelong, successful lovers of learning.
Let’s teach our children to question anything and everything, to make connections, to experiment, to always see the hand of Hashem, to love Torah, to always show gratitude, to love themselves and to love school. Let’s build their self-confidence, their self-esteem, their self-image and their self-awareness. Let’s nourish their minds, bodies and souls. Let’s nurture our children’s sense of wonder and excitement. The early childhood years are truly a magical time. Let’s start at the very beginning, and let’s do this right.
Every child will learn to read and write. They’ll be able to do that and much, much more. They may even have the confidence and the skills to change the world.
After all, all they ever really needed to know, they learned in kindergarten.