If I could summarise the main drive of early childhood education, whether at diploma or degree level, if it simply developing the skill of understanding and thinking about children’s learning.
Take the image below. To an “outsider”, the children are simply wasting time that could be spent being subjected to direct instruction. However, from the perspective of the teacher, children are learning through play.
It is quite clear that we do not “teach” children as much as they teach themselves. They grow and learn quite naturally. Just because we “feed” infants doesn’t mean we are the ones that make them grow. Similarly, when we provide materials, environments and opportunities for learning, we are simply nurturing and encouraging the best possible development in children. We provide fuel that feeds the flame of learning. If we deprive them, whether of food for the body, mind, or soul, we can extinguish that flame.
Or, to use another allegory, what we “teach” is filtered through the child’s mind and intellect. We don’t programme children as we do computers, they aren’t blank slates for us to write on as we please. We provide sensory input that’s largely indirect through sight, sound, touch and taste. The age-old parable about the farmer sowing seed on different types of grounds comes to mind – the same varieties of seed grow different in different environments and climates. There are other factors at work that are beyond teachers’ or parents’ control and these “variables” allow for different results.
Child are powerful. Their brains are powerful, working many times faster than that of an adult brain, developing synapses and links faster than we can keep up with. Early childhood education focuses on understanding how children naturally learn in order to be able to enhance and facilitate that learning. We need to work with children and not against them. As a teacher, I found that working with children’s interests and situating play as a powerful developmental tool was the most effective and least tiring teaching method.
At the same time, there’s cultural and societal training that goes on that we should appreciate as well. Children are born egocentric, but as they grow, they learn the essential life lesson that the world doesn’t revolve around them. They learn that life is not simply about pleasure, but about responsibility. They learn about delayed gratification, they learn to accept “no” for an answer. They learn that there are things in life (like sitting in car-seats) that we don’t necessarily like to do, but have to do for important reasons. They learn to be considerate, kind, thoughtful human beings. They learn to accept and include others who are different, and they learn about good values and behaviour that are necessary for living in a community These are valuable life lessons that come from the social environment and that are just as crucial to survival as are academic skills. One of the best ways to impact a child is by example. They learn by observing and imitating others.
Anyway, this is what I think feel about early childhood education – every educator will have a slightly different take. To me, all the subjects taught under early childhood education mainly deal with how children learn and we can work together with children and enrich the learning process. There’s no magic involved, no secret formulas. There are many good methods out there, but there’s no one, perfect, formula to follow. At the end of the day, I feel that parents are children’s best teachers” and that learning starts at home.