From infancy to age five there are countless developmental factors occurring daily and yearly in a young life. Why is early learning so important? And what ways do children ages three to five really learn?
First, early education is important because the window for assimilating and accommodating new information is only fully open when you are a young developing life. That window of learning goes through various stages of development itself before it shuts just enough to make learning a bit more challenging for adults. That certainly doesn’t mean that adults can’t learn new information, but it does mean that we adults have to navigate through our immense forests, mountains, and trails of previously learned knowledge to make room for new concepts, ideas, and information. This is a process considered easy for some and more difficult for others based on their previous level of education, the amount of diversity in their lives and an internal willingness to open their minds to new information. And one thing to remember is life itself is an ongoing process of learning.
If we peer into a window looking directly into a young child’s developing mind we will see many things changing, spaces filling up, pathways being created and a complicated network in construction. There are stages every child goes through during this intricate journey of learning. (I am only covering three stages in this posting).
- When focusing on children ages three to five the social/emotional aspect comes into play. Young children at first can emotionally only handle one other friend to engage with. Notice how I did not say “play with”. When a young child first begins the process of interacting with other children either their age, younger or older, there is an observational period in which the child will watch and listen while closing the proximity between them and the child they are focused on. If the child they are observing appears to not be a threat, the child will then start to play next to this child. Parallel play in one sense is a simple way for children to occupy the same space as another child in a non-confrontational manner while learning about that child’s personality, abilities, and similarities. At this point, the child is looking for similarities each have in common. “Does she like purple cars like me?” “Does he build houses like me?” “Are we wearing the same shirt?” “What is he/ she doing?” “Can I play with him/ her?” These are questions that may run through a child’s mind, however in a young child’s mind these questions are not articulated, but rather feelings, emotions running through their minds, waiting for the impulse to act on one or more of those feelings.
- The child’s journey of learning does not end there. The child will now move to associative play and start to play around and near other children including the first child they observed. An important fact to note for this stage of development is the child will be around and near other children and be engaged in play, however, there will be no common goal for the type of play this child is engaged in and for those in the area. This is the stage of development and the area of play where young children will converse, interact with the same materials, but not in an effort to form rules and common goals. This is a period of growth for a child to in a sense manipulate every engagement with both fellow children and the environment in a way to assimilate new knowledge and acquire skills to mature to the next level of development. Associative play paves the way for young minds to start the process of negotiation, compromise, common goals and the experience of delight when engaging with others which form an outcome of positive benefits. Now some sources may say this happens at ages four and five, yet it really does depend on the child. Many three-year-old children already are at this stage. And it is not a reflection of their intelligence, but rather a personality attribute and the type of family life the child is a part of. Remember a child’s experiences first emerge in the home with their families and whatever dynamics make up the family structure will affect each child in a vastly different way.
- The last stage I will cover in this posting is cooperative play. This is an equally important stage in child development as all the other stages. However, cooperative play is a bit more advanced and usually will occur with children in the range of 4-5 years. Again there is a case by case aspect that really cannot be ignored. Children as young as three can and do often fit into this stage of play sooner if they come from a family with siblings and if they have been exposed to many more social engagements than a peer who has less social experiences. Personality also plays a role in whether a three-year-old child will reach this stage of play sooner. It is not an aspect of development which can or should be rushed, though. When a child reaches this stage assessing any given situation is a quicker process and the child has some definite goals, plans, and ideas. Working with more than one other child begins to be common and taking turns, sharing, negotiating, compromising and forming a plan to carry out together will happen regularly. Some children still have a difficult time if, in groups of three, four people in a group tend to be more acceptable with their framework of understanding, so it is okay to model how to play in a group of three or to encourage dialogue when children start to get frustrated with their ideas not being heard. In a Reggio Emilia inspired environment, it really is important to listen carefully to the dialogue before intervening because you really don’t want to undermine the complex socialization taking place with each child. Learning how to work together cooperatively is the basis of this form of play and this stage of development and without the opportunities to practice these evolving skills consistently those vital skills, we all need as adults will not fully develop.
All too often young children are rushed to grow up and skip the vital developmental stages and processes they must go through naturally in order to be successful and capable as they grow older. Pushing traditional academics onto young children is not developmentally appropriate in any way. Remember that the early learning years are based on concrete minds, minds in which abstract thought has not physically developed yet. Children in the preschool years will naturally be exposed to letters, numbers, rhyming words, chants, stories of all sorts, expansions of their own imaginative stories and along with other important information all educational experts and families want their child to know. Just remember that before some of these more traditional skills are learned, practiced and mastered, the essential building blocks of cognitive development must be given a wide space to develop naturally. Early learning schools following educational philosophies based on play are the absolute best learning environments for young minds to grow, learn and become competent and confident people as they enter their next educational experiences.
Take the time to research some educational theories focused on the early years of child development and also research the types of early learning schools there are in your area. Make sure you choose a school that truly will support your child’s natural abilities to learn. Schools for children should feel warm, safe, happy and they should follow real educational theories. If they are just advertising “play-based”, that does not address what type of program they really follow or if they follow one at all. And remember that the teachers who interact with your child should be kind, sensitive and supportive of your child at all stages of his/ her development. This goes for child care facilities and in- home day -care businesses as well. The adult you leave your child with should be kind, respectful and sensitive to your child at all times because as we all know, as adults we don’t forget the pain adults caused us as young children.
Early childhood is an immensely important time in a human beings life. So support their needs by enrolling your child in a preschool that cares about their educational futures and respects their rights as intelligent sensitive people.
The Marigold School of Early Learning!
Heidi Scott is an experienced Teacher with both a Bachelor’s in Human Development with a Focus on Early Childhood Education and a Master’s In Teaching grades preschool – eighth grades.