It has taken a long time for the importance of the preschool years to become widely acknowledged. Today, we read about it in newspapers and magazines. We heard about it during President Obama’s State of the Union Address. It is, at the same time, exciting for those of us in the profession and a little frightening. In our quest to give children the best early childhood foundation for future learning, it is essential that we do not lose sight of realistic expectations for our youngest learners.
The most important skills that children learn during the preschool years are social and emotional. They go from having the undivided attention of adults who care for their every need to becoming part of a group. They learn the art of functioning in a community and begin to find their place in a larger world. Early learners need to be in an environment that is based upon the reality of how young children learn and how their need to develop individually is best fostered:
- Every child develops at a different rate. Some children will be very verbal while others will be more analytical. Some children will be ready to write or read during the preschool years and others will not. Some children will have a vast vocabulary while others are still mastering the ins and outs of language skills. The development of cognitive skills takes place at different times for each child. Potty training, zipping clothes and tying shoes cannot be scheduled on a calendar. Learning to read and write cannot be scheduled either. While children should be offered opportunities to practice new skills, we need to be careful that skills which are developmental do not become mandatory. We need to ensure that unrealistic testing does not enter the preschool classroom.
- Young children need the opportunity to make decisions and solve real problems in order to gain self-confidence and become critical thinkers. The majority of a preschooler’s day should be child driven and not directed by adults. Children need to be able to freely explore and ask questions. It is the teacher’s job to expand upon their natural curiosity by asking more questions and encouraging more exploration. Adults need to be presenting opportunities for children to add to their own knowledge and not trying to pour facts into their students’ heads. This cannot happen if too much time is spent at adult pursuits. We need to recognize that what looks like learning to adults – test scores, 100% on workbook pages – does not create learners.
- Children need the freedom to test societal boundaries. Children test the world around them in a variety of ways. They try out new behavior and imitate the behavior of others to see if the adults will react. They set up pretend situations to experiment with power, emotion, acceptance and rejection. The most important part of their day is when they pretend. They are egocentric and must become something in order to see how it feels. They cannot simply observe their parents or friends to understand their feelings. They have to be the people around them. Thus, they will watch someone be corrected for inappropriate behavior but will immediately do the same themselves. They will pretend to be their parents, teachers, doctor, sibling and even their pets. They have to have the time to do this and their behavior has to be gently guided. It is through imitation and pretend that they develop empathy and decision making skills. We need to be careful that we recognize that “free play” is actually the most important learning time of the day. No amount of writing letters or numbers can outweigh the lessons learned during “free play.”
So many parents and teachers bemoan the product based, test driven environment that has become so pervasive in our elementary, middle school and high school classrooms. Teaching to the test takes time away from deeper, more meaningful experiences. The near elimination of recess and socialization time has taken away the time that children need to unwind and explore on their own. As our society embraces the importance of an early childhood education, we must work to ensure that the focus remains on how to help our youngest students become empathetic, self-assured critical thinkers. We must encourage a system that gives parents choice as to what their children will experience in their most formative years.
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Copyright 2013 © Cindy Terebush
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