The field of early childhood education has gained national attention as preschools prepare young children to be successful in kindergarten, in their school careers, and in life. “School readiness” is mentioned frequently in the news media. Increased national attention has resulted in a great deal of confusion about what actually constitutes high quality early childhood education. The erroneous notion of “academic” vs. “play based” curriculum has dominated the current curriculum discourse, as has the emphasis on standardized, prefabricated curriculum models. The field of early childhood education has a substantive theoretical and research oriented core of knowledge. This position statement endeavors to clarify what that knowledge base is, what high quality curriculum really is, and how such a curriculum operates at Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) Slattery Center.
Early childhood education is a profession based on the theories and research of Piaget, Montessori, Vygotsky, Gardner, Katz, and Brazelton, among others. Piaget’s theory of intellectual development and Vygotsky’s social constructivist theory have guided early childhood teaching practice. Vygotsky guided us to scaffold instruction and he stated that children learn through social and intellectual engagement. Montessori taught us that learning environments are powerful teachers and that materials should be carefully designed and selected. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences helped us understand that children can be “smart” in many ways and that each child exhibits areas of strength. Katz taught us that children learn best when they investigate their world and when they are intensely interested and engaged. Brazelton highlighted the developmental aspects of the early childhood years and the importance of key relationships in the social and emotional development of young children. Recent research in the area of neuroscience has demonstrated without a doubt that the years from birth to five are crucial for the development and “wiring” of the brain, establishing the early years as critical for future school and career success.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and Zero to Three, the preeminent early childhood professional organizations, have published documents based on research and best practices. NAEYC’s book, Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs, describes in detail five basic guidelines for developmentally appropriate practice. They are: 1) creating a caring community of learners, 2) teaching to enhance development and learning, 3) planning curriculum to achieve important goals, 4) assessing children’s development and learning, and 5) establishing reciprocal relationships with families. Zero to Three’s Infant/ Toddler
Developmentally Appropriate Practice states that relationships are essential for healthy emotional, physical, cognitive, and linguistic development, and that the child’s identity actually begins to form at this young age. The brain grows sequentially and babies’ brains grow more rapidly in size and complexity in the first three years than during any other period (except before birth).
Research on school readiness is abundant; however one recent publication is particularly valuable and informative in the area of early literacy. The 2008 National Early Literacy Panel has identified six variables representing early literacy skills as predictors of literacy development. These variables are: 1) alphabet knowledge, 2) phonological awareness, 3) rapid automatic naming of numbers and letters, 4) rapid naming of colors and sequences of picture objects, 5) writing or writing one’s name, and 6) phonological memory for spoken information. Oral language is similarly considered necessary for reading comprehension and for social learning and relationship building.
The current climate of schooling is different than many of us remember and it continues to change. Guided by the national No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, children are experiencing what is now termed the “new” kindergarten where academic learning is expected. Some educators have called this the “push down” curriculum. What used to be first grade is now kindergarten. Children are screened in the beginning of kindergarten and in the later years their progress is monitored on the FCAT. The environment is one where achievement, particularly in math and literacy, is valued. Parents and their children both feel a sense of pressure and anticipation as kindergarten begins.
In response to the changing expectations of children in kindergarten, the state of Florida has revised the learning standards for children from birth to five, including the VPK standards. The goal is to promote alignment of standards from preK to kindergarten to the upper grades. The new statewide learning standards, if they are achieved, help children to deal effectively with the transition to kindergarten because children arrive in kindergarten ready to master the intellectual challenges and demands they will encounter.
Quality early childhood education is grounded in a solid and expanding scholarly knowledge base, in terms of child development and curriculum practice. Teachers are professionals whose job is to understand and implement the complex and rich research now available in the field. Early childhood educators have gained status, and that status has been earned by study, excellence in teaching practice, and dedication.
Is the curriculum at the Slattery Center academic? Yes, absolutely. Is the curriculum play-based? Yes, it is that as well. All the academic learning is purposely embedded in the thoughtfully designed learning activities, classroom routines and transitions, and in outdoor activities and field trips. Documentation of children’s learning is evident in the documentation boards which encourage children to visually represent and revisit their experiences and gain deeper understandings. Teachers are specific and intentional as they plan the curriculum, and they carefully monitor and observe instances of children’s’ learning and achievement of developmental milestones and academic learning. From the youngest children enjoying reading, to the toddlers learning vocabulary and simple sentences, to the three year olds learning to count, to the four year olds learning initial consonants, all the children are engaging in academic learning at their own specific developmental levels. Academic learning for a baby is about being able to feed independently, to repeat and respond to sounds, and to understand that actions have consistent consequences. For a toddler, academics means learning to wait one’s turn, to pronounce new words, to begin counting, and to start drawing, which is really the beginning of writing. Developmentally, children’s academic skills build from year to year, and sometimes there are recognizable growth spurts. Academics for three year olds includes drawing complex images and writing one’s name, using language for interactive play, and learning to use sentences including nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Four year olds experience a more advanced level of academics as they identify number quantities, graph their height, memorize complicated songs, and build with blocks to learn about numerical relationships. These are just a few of the ways that Slattery’s curriculum is academic. There is a lot more because the learning standards come alive in daily classroom activities. The children are actively engaged in their worlds, they are excited about learning and coming to school, and they feel accepted and nurtured by the teachers. They make friends and learn to communicate, deal with frustration, and learn how to compromise, essential skills for future social experiences in school and in their communities.
The curriculum model at Slattery center is eclectic because the best practices of all curriculum models are utilized, rather than narrowly focusing on one curriculum model. The Slattery Center teachers work as collaborative teams, continually revising and creating an enriched “project approach” integrated curriculum. Classroom projects empower children to become independent thinkers and creative problem solvers and to learn academic and social skills through exploration and discovery. Children learn by doing and through direct experience. Building on children’s interests, strengths, and academic levels, motivation is high and attention span increases. The “project approach” correlates with the latest research on brain development and early literacy learning. Classroom projects educate children through group and individualized activities and outdoor and indoor experiences, which stimulate investigation and academic learning in the areas of language and literacy, math, music and movement, expressive arts, block building, dramatic play, science, woodworking, and cooking. The children’s library fosters enthusiasm and skill in reading comprehension, storytelling, and bookmaking. Throughout the classrooms on any given day, teachers are using educational methods from a range of early childhood curriculums – High Scope, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Bank Street, and Creative Curriculum. Additionally, curriculum is adapted to support children with special needs and children who are English language learners.
Slattery’s curriculum is consistent with and represents the philosophy of the College of Education’s early childhood teacher education degree programs, the Bachelor of Early Care and Education Degree and the Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. Teacher education students spend time in Slattery’s classrooms observing and participating in the curriculum as appropriate. Several College of Education early childhood classes are taught on site at the Slattery Center. Community educators, leaders, and preschool directors visit Slattery to learn about best practices and the project approach to curriculum. Their responses have been overwhelmingly positive, enthusiastic, and appreciative.
The Slattery Center is also a research site for interdisciplinary university faculty conducting studies related to the early childhood years. Research takes place only with parental consent. Slattery teachers have identified their own research priority areas and are already working with College of Education faculty to conduct studies. Other Slattery teachers have chosen to pursue their own action research independently. The Slattery Center is strongly affiliated with and uniquely positioned in the College of Education’s new Toppel Family Early Childhood Education Institute, an interdisciplinary academic learning community that conducts research, develops community partnerships, and plans future early childhood initiatives at FAU.
Parent participation is welcome and encouraged. Parents may visit classrooms, join children on classroom trips, share artifacts and resources related to classroom projects, attend special events (like the Silent Auction), reinforce children’s learning at home, maintain regular communication with the children’s teachers, attend tri-annual parent teacher conferences, meet with the director as needed, participate in fundraising and publicity, share information and ideas with Slattery’s Advisory Board, and attend school-wide parent meetings and seminars.
It is important for parents to understand the academic aspects of the curriculum in each classroom and therefore conversations with teachers are essential and definitely benefit the children. Depending on the age of the children, parents may have specific questions and concerns. Teachers can explain to parents how the learning standards are embedded in their daily curriculum activities. Parents should also work closely with their children’s teachers to help the children experience a smooth transition to kindergarten.