Friday, February 23, 2018

Early Childhood Education: A Teacher's Role

In "Early Childhood:  A Plea from the Field" , I wrote about the importance of the early learning years, and how early childhood educators are so often misunderstood and under-appreciated.  It's harder to measure learning in early childhood because there are no products to assess achievement; no tests, quizzes, homework, etc.  The early childhood curriculum is more focused on building developmental skills.  It's about process, not content.  And since children learn through play, an outsider to the field may not understand the teacher's role in the classroom.  What does the teacher do while the children play?

I began to understand how children learn through play when I was an undergraduate doing field work for a developmental psychology course.  I was volunteering at an inner city nursery school in Binghamton, NY.  One day I was playing catch with a three year old boy.  As we played, the teacher said to me, "Use language, Georgia."  So I started labeling what we were doing:  "Catch the ball.  Good catch.  Now throw it to me.  I missed! ", on and on, adding new words such as high, low, far, close, etc. in the context of our play.  Aha! That's how you learn through play.  Not only did the child have words to put to our actions, but he learned about the effects of his muscles on the trajectory of the ball.

Children learn enormous amounts about the world around them through play.  A gifted, qualified teacher can help her students rack up major educational advantages. Early childhood professionals understand the continuum of child development.  They know the steps needed to achieve goals. Through observations and interactions, they determine each child's place on that developmental continuum and create an environment for optimal learning.  

Let's think about learning to read for example. Learning to read is a process that begins at birth and is not completed until the college years.  Since reading is a form of communication, it is intimately connected to the other components of language:  listening, speaking, and writing.  So the first step in learning to read is to build a rich vocabulary of spoken words.  A baby listens to the sounds around her and begins to connect them with things and actions.  As a socially motivated being, she coos and babbles in an attempt to become  a communicative partner.  When paired with a responsive adult, she learns the meaning of words and eventually tries them out on her own.  

This is the very beginning, the foundation of reading.  A skilled early childhood teacher creates a literacy enriched environment that can maximize her students' potential for language acquisition.  She listens to the children's conversations and imaginative play roles, and introduces words and opportunities for extending learning.  If children are playing doctor for example, the teacher can add props such as a stethoscope, band-aids, mini flashlight.  She can give the children a clipboard and notepad for prescriptions, maybe an eye chart or xrays.  She can transcribe the children's role-playing ideas and encourage them to dictate stories.  She can include books about doctor visits in the class library and read them at story time. She can invite a doctor to visit the class, and encourage children to ask questions.  

The doctor scenario is a rough outline of how children's play can be enriched to promote their emerging literacy skills.  Meaningful vocabulary, concepts, and experiences with print are naturally woven into the children's self-directed activities.  Early childhood teachers have an arsenal of such activities to promote every aspect of developmental learning, including math, science, social studies, art, music, and social-emotional skills.  Every corner of the classroom, and every minute of the day, is carefully and intentionally planned to promote learning that is fun, active, and appropriate to the students.

It might be important to point out what the teacher has not done.  She hasn't ignored the children's play.  She hasn't given the children worksheets, coloring sheets, or other two dimensional pencil and paper tasks.  She hasn't lectured, or followed up a book with closed-ended questions.  She hasn't limited the children's experiences to conform with what she knows and thinks.  She isn't "playing school", watering down elementary curriculum to fit younger children.

An early childhood teacher is more of a facilitator of learning than a source and sharer of knowledge.  Her work is thoroughly connected to the children's current interests and developmental levels. Children and teachers are collaborators in uncovering lessons from classroom experiences.  The rewards can be remarkable:  a timid child gaining confidence; a pre-reading child dictating a detailed story, a child who has learned to use scissors, grasp a pencil, write his name.  There are also many intangible rewards, which may be hard to see. But we know that it is in the early childhood classroom that children learn about respect, responsibility, kindness and compassion.

No one enters the field of early childhood education to make a lot of money.  Teaching young children is as much a calling as it is a job, and early childhood educators are among the most committed, caring, hard-working and talented folks around.  Learning looks different in the early years, and it takes a qualified professional to understand that.

1 comment:

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