The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the primary organization that sets national standards for and oversees accreditation of early childhood programs, has published Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children From Birth Through Age 8. This book is available for you to check out from our parenting education library in order to learn more about developmentally appropriate early childhood programs. NAEYC sets forth the position that “a high quality early childhood program provides a safe and nurturing environment that promotes the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development of young children while responding to the needs of families. Although the quality of an early childhood program may be affected by many factors, a major determinant of program quality is the extent to which knowledge of child development is applied in program practices–the degree to which the program is developmentally appropriate.”
Since 1982 the program at Woodinville Family Preschool has been based on child development theory and research. The use of the term “developmentally appropriate practice” by NAEYC has served to validate our curriculum. Our philosophy has always been based on what is known about how young children develop and learn, and all of our staff members have degrees in child development or early education. The developmental appropriateness of the program at Woodinville Family Preschool was further validated in June 1995 with the awarding of national accreditation by NAEYC. Since then we have continued to maintain our accredited status through extensive periodic assessments. For more information on accreditation by NAEYC, visit the organization’s website at www.naeyc.org.
Research in the area of cognitive development in young children suggests that children learn best in an enriched, multi-sensory environment that is age-appropriate. Each child should be free to interact with this environment and construct personal knowledge in a learning style and at a rate most appropriate for him/her as an individual. The preschool program in which this type of learning can best transpire is one in which the major portion of the day is devoted to free play. Free play allows each child to explore multi-sensory experiences, with adult guidance, when and how s/he chooses. Concepts can be learned in the way the child is most comfortable–through art, music, construction, stories, math or science experiences, cooking or gardening involvement, or dramatic play.
As children construct knowledge, adults serve as guides who observe, comment, and ask questions regarding the child’s use of materials and interactions in both the physical and social environments. Adults encourage children to go deeper in their thinking and understanding. In contrast, a learning structure which is planned and imposed by adults tells the child when and how to use given materials and expects specific responses from children. The latter type of environment is not consistent with what research demonstrates to be the way children learn best.
Specifically, the preschool environment is planned to include six major categories of experience for the children:
1. Sensory experiences
The more senses a child can involve in a given situation, the more brain activity takes place, and the more complete his/her understanding will be. Preschool experiences are planned to encourage children to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Encourage sensory experiences both at school and at home; different from the adult brain, this is how the young child’s brain grows.
2. Concrete experiences
The more a child explores and interacts with real objects, the more meaningful his/her learning will be. Experiences are planned in which real objects are brought into the classroom or in which children are taken to see actual items to be discussed. The more concrete the experience, the earlier it should take place. For example, children have a pig to see, hear, touch and smell, then pictures, stories, songs, pretend play, and discussions about pigs are understood in all the subtleties of the word “pig.” By having the concrete experience first, a myriad of mental and sensory images will be recalled in later, more abstract situations. This understanding in the context of the real world is a much deeper and richer type of learning than that which can be achieved by recognizing abstract associations of “pig” without having experienced and understood “pig” in its entirety. Give your child more experiences with real objects and fewer screen experiences.
3. Opportunities for discovery learning
The child’s learning is more lasting and complete when s/he discovers something for her/himself rather than when s/he is shown or taught something by an adult. Through her/his own exploration, manipulation, and discovery, the child practices and sharpens mental skills that are at a deeper level than rote learning, a comparatively superficial skill. Specifically, s/he becomes adept at problem solving, reasoning, anticipation of consequences, and synthesis of discoveries into concepts. Experiencing the joy of her/his own discoveries provides an affective component to learning that is an essential base for later learning through intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.
At preschool, you will have opportunities to supervise children as they explore the environment. For example, you will see children engaged with a large container of sand or water and various sizes and shapes of utensils (e.g., strainer, baster, funnels, colanders, measuring cups and spoons). Sit back, observe, and enjoy the child’s natural mental functions at work. Resist our adult urge to say, “Look, here’s how it works,” or “Let me show you a better way.”
To most effectively encourage children in their discoveries, learn how to ask productive questions at appropriate times. Your questions should not overwhelm the child’s play but should support and extend his/her investigations. The following examples of productive questions are excerpted from “Productive Questions: Tools for Supporting Constructivist Learning” by Mary Lee Martens in Science and Children, vol. 53, pp. 24-27.
A. Attention-focusing questions help children fix their attention on significant details. Have you seen…? What have you noticed about…? What are they doing? How does it feel/smell/look?
B. Comparison questions help children analyze and classify. How are they the same or different? How do they go together?
C. Action questions encourage children to explore the properties of unfamiliar materials, living or nonliving, and of small events taking place, or to make predictions about phenomena. What happens if…? What would happen if…? What if…?
D. Problem-posing questions help children plan and implement solutions to problems. Can you find a way to…? Can you figure out how to…?
E. Reasoning questions help children think about experiences and construct ideas that make sense to them. What do you think…? What is your reason for…?
4. Opportunities for divergent thinking
Perhaps the most essential mental skill contributing to creativity is divergent thinking. Divergent thinking involves the production of many solutions to a given problem. For example, when you provide your child with a large cardboard carton, observe the many schemes s/he contrives for its use–divergent thinking and creativity at work! Providing daily opportunities for the child to practice divergent thinking skills allows him/her to sharpen his/her cognitive and creative powers. Again, ask questions and resist our urge to say “I have a good idea for what to do!”
In contrast, convergent thinking requires the production of one “right” solution to a given problem. Learning to recite the right letter of the alphabet, word, or number when shown a flashcard is an example of convergent thinking. It is not necessary, and indeed is probably detrimental, for babies and young children to experience the anxieties and pressures that may accompany expecting too much convergent thinking too soon.
Most aspects of the preschool curriculum call upon the child to perform divergent thinking. Blocks, sand, water, paints, and other materials are put together in unique ways that the child creates. Projects which require convergent thinking are minimized. This is why we ask participating adults to avoid building specific structures, modeling with clay or playdough, or drawing representational items; it suggests that the child should imitate the model made by the adult rather than developing his/her own creativity and divergent thinking abilities.
5. Emergent literacy experiences and mathematical language and concepts
Recent research in the field of early literacy development has demonstrated that the foundation for successful writing and reading is rich oral language experience. For this reason, we encourage one-on-one conversations with children, reading stories to individual children during free play, and teaching songs and rhymes that children can do at home as well as at preschool. We offer materials for children to gain experience in art as a foundation for writing, and we share the joy of books as a foundation for reading.
Our director, an early childhood literacy and math specialist, has trained thousands of preschool and kindergarten teachers throughout the United States and Canada in techniques for promoting literacy and math development in their classrooms. Many of these practices are demonstrated in our preschool. Because they seem playful and fun, it may not be apparent at first that these are steps in writing, reading, and mathematical processes. Please ask your parent educator if you would like more information on emergent literacy or early childhood math. You can support your child’s growth toward writing, reading, and math by adopting these same practices at home.
6. Opportunities for sharing the expertise of parents
Parents of preschool children are the greatest possible curriculum resource! They represent many areas of expertise through their hobbies, interests, and professional skills. Fathers, mothers, and extended family members are asked to share with us whenever appropriate and possible. In the multi-day classes we would like to visit work sites of parents who are involved in businesses related to our curriculum themes. In all classes, we invite parents to share with the children their jobs, family rituals, or cultural customs. The more that can be learned about the resources parents have to offer, the more effective can be the preschool curriculum and thus the learning that takes place in children and adults alike! Please share with us—your sharing enriches our community!
Responsibility for curriculum planning lies with the staff. They strive to develop a preschool environment in which sensory and concrete experiences, discovery learning, divergent thinking, and emergent literacy and math experiences are natural daily occurrences for all children–from birth to kindergarten. Likewise, parents are encouraged to be consistent with this philosophy of providing a stimulating environment, whether planning enrichment experiences at home or to share at school. Such sharing is always welcomed, and in most classes at least one person is responsible for assisting the staff in supplementing the basic school curriculum. In multi-day classes, curriculum teams assist their parent educator in providing selected experiences as a part of the over-all curriculum, and gardening and outdoor curriculum assistants work with our Outdoor Curriculum Specialist.