In reporting on the good teacher search, I described an amazing project called “mining,” developed by two teachers in a suburban middle school. Children were given a hands on experience in which chocolate chip cookies and various kinds of toothpicks were used to teach math, environmental issues, profit and loss in business ventures and judgment among other things. It was the kind of creative teaching that kept children engaged, interested and learning.
In many ways this seems like the kind teaching and learning that parents would hope their children could be exposed. I was surprised to learn that many parents were not that happy. Apparently, the concern was that this kind of teaching would not prepare their children for the kind of tests that are now given as part of the core curriculum protocol. Although the children were really learning in many areas that are an important part of being educated, they were not being drilled in the Q and A format they would encounter in the testing situation.
This speaks to a central criticism of the implementation of the core curriculum and its effect on education. The emphasis on test results as a way of judging teachers, schools and children has led to so-called “teaching to the test.” Everything seems to ride on how well children will do on the tests and the pressure this has created is felt by teachers, children and parents.
Another negative aspect is the focus that has developed on narrow academic skills, an emphasis that has trickled down even to the early school years. Recent studies have shown that these days kindergarten seems more like first grade, with little time for play, exploration and social interaction. Pressure to achieve good outcomes on required third grade exams has led to an academic curriculum in kindergarten.
The pressure of the emphasis on academics has even trickled down to the preschool years. Unfortunately, the idea seems to have taken hold that only the acquisition of academic skills constitutes real learning. Too often, a description of the nursery school years reflects a feeling that children are just playing – implying that nothing important is happening.
In fact, as many have noted, play is children’s work. It is through play, pretending and the use of their imagination that children begin to enter the adult world. They develop cognitive and language skills and as important, social and emotional skills. Learning to function successfully in a group means learning how to interact with others in socially acceptable ways. That means expressing feelings appropriately and resolving conflict situations. It means learning to share and to take turns.
Children learn about the world through the use of their senses. The early school years should afford them the opportunity and the materials to make that possible. If you watch children at a water table, a sandbox, using finger paints or clay you will see not only imagination and creativity at work but also the meaning of the tactile experience that is provided.
Children solve engineering and architectural problems using building blocks. They find solutions to complex balancing problems. They create cities and become mindful of the environment – namely others engaged in projects that cannot be disrupted. In a housekeeping corner children try out different roles and costumes – including what it feels like to walk in mom or dad’s shoes.
Young children also need to move – to run, jump and use their bodies. Both large and small muscles need exercise so that play in the physical sense is an important part of children’s development. Using their bodies also involves learning how to control their bodies when necessary and that becomes increasingly important as children later are expected to sit at desks, to focus and attend to teacher directions.
We keep hearing about the importance of early childhood education in solving the later educational problems that have emerged in recent years. Early childhood education has also been stressed as the key to equalizing academic performance and thereby later economic achievement. In New York City universal pre-K is now the starting point of the public school system.
Early childhood education is intended to serve as the building blocks for later success. We should be looking at the importance of the building blocks themselves in those early years, as well as the other materials children “play” with, as the foundation on which to build. “Play” is the true beginning of education.