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by Thomas Armstrong
Table of Contents
In a Michigan kindergarten, Joshua Mullins grows germs in a petri dish, practices Spanish vocabulary, and completes homework by writing in his journal (MacDonald, 2005). In San Diego, California, teachers' efforts to lower reading benchmarks for kindergarten children alarm a district official who declares: “When the bar becomes lower, very often teachers can have a lower expectation for children” (Gao, 2005, para. 12). In a Florida school district, kindergarten lessons cover reading, writing, math, science, history, geography, civics, and economics (Feller, 2005). In a Wisconsin school district, benchmarks for kindergarten include “understanding the concept of one-to-one correspondence,” “making a simple graph and sharing observations,” and “demonstrating knowledge of penmanship guidelines.” Academic preschools are shooting up across the United States. These schools have 4-year-olds practicing phonics skills, filling out activity worksheets, and writing books (see, for example, Whitehurst, 2001).
Thirty years ago, such activities at the preschool or kindergarten level would have been inconceivable to all but the most achievement-driven educators. Today, they are common practice. The “children's gardens” created by Friedrich Froebel 150 years ago are turning into learning factories for the very young. Early childhood education once was a domain in which Human Development Discourse was the primary conversation taking place among educators. Today, it is Academic Achievement Discourse that reigns. In this chapter, I'll focus on early childhood education and describe what the real developmental needs of young children are, how play is the single best way in which those needs can be met in preschools and kindergartens, and how to distinguish between early childhood programs that use developmentally inappropriate practices and those that use developmentally appropriate practices.
Academic Achievement Discourse seeks to create a continuity of curricula from early childhood education into elementary school and beyond. Programs that use Academic Achievement Discourse phrases such as “bridging the preK–elementary divide” and “creating seamless transitions from kindergarten to elementary school,” hide the fact that in most cases, they seek to make early childhood education more like elementary school and not the reverse (see Wiltz, 2005). And yet, young children live—socially, cognitively, and emotionally—in a qualitatively different world than older children. The work of Jean Piaget, in particular, has made educators aware of how vastly different the developmental needs of young children are from older children. Piaget used the term “pre-operational” to describe the thinking of children from the age of 2 or 3 to 6. By this he meant that young children don't yet use logical operations (numeration, seriation, reversibility thinking, etc.) in their mental processes in understanding the world around them. In his book
The Child's Conception of the World, Piaget (1975) described some of the ways in which young children think about the world. They use animism—that is, they see inanimate objects as alive. Piaget observed a 3-year-old who had scratched herself on a wall point to her hand and say: “Who made that mark? ... It hurts where the wall hit me” (p. 212). The world of a preschooler is dynamic and even mythological in character. Piaget noted that a 4-year-old boy said, “There's the moon, it's round.” Then, when a cloud covered the moon, the child commented, “Look now, it's been killed” (p. 210).
Human developmental pioneer Heinz Werner (1980) used the term “physiognomic perception” to describe how young children look at the world. He wrote:
All of us, at some time or other, have had this experience [in adulthood]. A landscape, for instance, may be seen suddenly in immediacy as expressing a certain mood—it may be gay or melancholy or pensive. This mode of perception differs radically from the more everyday perception in which things are known according to their “geometrical-technical” matter-of-fact qualities, as it were. In our own sphere there is one field where objects are commonly perceived as directly expressing an inner life. This is in our perception of the faces and bodily movements of human beings and higher animals. Because the human physiognomy can be adequately perceived only in terms of its immediate expression, I have proposed the term physiognomic perception for this mode of cognition in general. (p. 69)
As an example, Werner cited the case of a 4-year-old girl who saw some cards on which angular figures were drawn and exclaimed, “Ugh! What a lot of prickles and thorns!” She hesitated to pick up the cards, thinking that the thorns would prick her fingers. In another case, a 5½-year-old girl was walking in the rain with her mother during dusk and said: “I can't see a thing, it's so foggy. Everything is like whispering!” (Werner, 1980, pp. 72–74). Russian children's author Kornei Chukovsky (1963) regarded children from 2 to 5 as “linguistic geniuses” because of their ability to use thought and language in fresh ways, such as in the case of the child who said, “Don't turn out the light—I won't be able to see how to sleep” (p. 3). The experience of synesthesia, in which sights are heard, colors tasted, and sounds touched, is much more common in early development (see, for example, Baron-Cohen, 1996). The young child's imagination is more vivid than the older child's, and in some cases it reaches the level of eidetic imagery, where inner images are seen as clearly as outer perceptions (see, Giray, Altkin, Vaught, & Roodin, 1976).
The young child's metaphorical, imaginative, synesthetic, and magical ways of approaching the world are, in many ways, a reflection of what is going on at the neurological level. The brain of a young child is structurally and functionally different from the brain of an older child. As brain researcher Marian Diamond (Diamond & Hopson, 1998) pointed out:
The energy use in a 2-year-old [brain] is equal to an adult's. And then,
the levels keep right on rising until, by age 3, the child's brain is twice
as active as an adult's. This metaphoric crackling, bristling, sparkling, and glowing of brain cells remains at double the adult rate until about age 9 or 10; at that time, metabolism begins dropping and reaches adult levels by age 18. (p. 54)
At the same time, the young child has an abundance of dendrites (connections between neurons) undergoing a process of pruning, in which neuronal connections are reinforced or discarded depending upon what types of stimulation the child receives or doesn't receive from the environment (Chugani, 1998). Social and emotional factors in the child's surroundings are particularly important in this process of brain development (Siegel, 2001).
In addition, the young child's nervous system has not yet been fully myelinated in many areas of the brain. Myelination is the process by which axons are sheathed or insulated to permit the efficient passage of electric impulses through the brain (see Klingberg, Vaidya, Gabrieli, Moseley, & Hedehus, 1999). This incomplete myelination of the brain may help to explain why many of the young child's perceptions and thoughts are so different from the thinking of older kids and adults. The incredible plasticity of the child's brain points to the importance of the child's surroundings—a safe and caring social and emotional space coupled with a hands-on interactive environment—in promoting healthy neurological growth. The high metabolic activity in a young child's brain suggests that the child should be exposed to dynamic, creative, and multisensory experiences.
Children's play represents the single best way in which the above developmental requirements can be met. Play is a dynamic, ever-changing process that is multisensory, interactive, creative, and imaginative. When children play, they have their whole brain stimulated, not just specific areas related to formal academic skills. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1929) wrote: “It seems to me that from the point of view of development, play is not the predominant form of activity, but is, in a certain sense, the leading source of development in preschool years” (p. 415). Play facilitates a child's physical and sensorimotor development as she runs, jumps, digs, acts, paints, draws, and in other ways has direct contact with the living earth and the culture around her. It promotes social learning as she plays with other kids, creating roles based on what she sees in the social world around her, adjusting her own play behavior to the needs and demands of her peers. It supports emotional growth as the child is able to project her own fears, joys, jealousies, angers, and ambitions onto toys, puppets, and other playthings, and work out her feelings about a wide range of concerns in constructive ways. It supports cognitive development as the child works symbolically with art materials, dramatic improvisation, and other modes of representation, constructing patterns of meaning from interactions with things and people (see Singer & Singer, 1990).
But great as the above benefits seem, they are nothing compared with what is most extraordinary about play: play serves as a mediator between what is possible and what is actual. As developmental psychiatrist David Winnicott (1982) put it:
This area of playing is not inner psychic reality. It is outside the individual, but it is not the external world. Into this play area the child gathers objects or phenomena from external reality and uses these in the service of some sample derived from inner or personal reality. Without hallucinating the child puts out a sample of dream potential and lives with this sample in a chosen setting of fragments from external reality. (p. 14)
When children play in this way, they mix the contents of their imaginations (things that are merely possible) with the contents of the real world (blocks, toys, costumes, lofts), and through their own creative acts they bring into the world something spontaneous, novel, and unique. An empty refrigerator box becomes a spaceship. A piece of cloth becomes the shawl of an Arabian princess. A group of blocks becomes a horde of prehistoric animals in a jungle. This process of play may be the single most important thing that humans do. Some scientists have suggested that it was by playing that human beings developed their frontal lobes (Furlow, 2001). The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1986) in his classic work on play, Homo Ludens (Man at Play), suggested that play “as a social impulse [is] older than culture itself.... Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play.... We have to conclude that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played” (p. 173).
We can see the importance of play to the development of civilization by listening to the great thinkers of the world describe their own accomplishments in terms of play. Isaac Newton once wrote: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea shore and diverting himself and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary while the greater ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me” (cited in Brewster, 2005, p. 407). Nuclear physicist and father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer once said, “There are children playing on the streets who could solve some of my top physics problems, because they have modes of perception I lost long ago” (cited in McLuhan & Fiore, 1967, p. 93). Frank Lloyd Wright traced his own beginnings as an architect back to his first experiences with simple wooden blocks in a Froebel kindergarten (see Rubin, 1989). Alexander Fleming, the Scottish scientist who discovered penicillin, said: “I play with microbes. It is very pleasant to break rules” (cited in Cole, 1988, p. C16). It may be that virtually every significant contribution to culture originally stemmed from a playful act that had its seeds in childhood. This extraordinary feature of play, coupled with its social, emotional, physical, and cognitive benefits, makes play the central developmental activity around which all other early childhood education activities must revolve.
Sadly, in our culture, play is undergoing a significant deterioration. One of the world's greatest experts on play, New Zealand researcher Brian Sutton-Smith, suggests that the typical image now of a child at play is of a single child sitting in front of a television set or video game, playing with his action figures (see Hansen, 1998). This isn't play. Neither are soccer games or other competitive sports events that take place on a regular basis in every community. Play is an open-ended experience initiated by children that involves pretense, rough-and-tumble activity, or the spontaneous use of real objects for creative activity. Play is becoming more of an endangered species in early childhood programs as academic demands increase. In this section, I'd like to look at some of the developmentally inappropriate practices that have replaced play in kindergartens and preschools around the country.
Educators who employ Academic Achievement Discourse frequently point to brain research, and in particular to the plasticity of the child's brain, as a justification for teaching young children to read, write, and do math. Yet brain research is actually suggesting quite the reverse, demonstrating that the young child's brain is not yet ready for these abstract formal skills, but rather should be devoted to imaginative, metaphorical, multisensory, and playful learning.
Piaget led the way in pointing out how children advance cognitively by engaging in a naturalistic hands-on exploration of the real world. It is interesting to note that Piaget was often asked by American educators how the stages of cognitive development could be speeded up (a good example of Academic Achievement Discourse at work). Piaget called this “the American question” (Duckworth, 1979, p. 303). The stages of development shouldn't be forced, he suggested, but rather should come from a natural interaction of the child with a rich environment.
One of Piaget's chief proponents in the United States, psychologist David Elkind (2001b), points out how developmentally inappropriate it is to teach math too early:
It is only at age 6 or 7, when they have attained what Piaget calls “concrete operations,” that children can construct the concept of a “unit,” the basis for understanding the idea of interval numbers. To attain the unit concept, children must come to understand that every number is both like every other number, in the sense that it is a number, and at the same time different in its order of enumeration. Once children attain the unit concept, their notion of number is abstract and divorced from particular things, unlike nominal and ordinal numbers. Mathematical operations like addition, subtraction, and multiplication can be performed only on numbers that represent units that can be manipulated without reference to particular things. (p. 13)
Similarly, with respect to the inappropriate teaching of reading to young children, Elkind wrote:
To read phonemically, a child must be able to recognize that a letter can be pronounced differently depending on the context. A child who can read “hat,” “cat,” and “sat” may have trouble with “ate,” “gate,” and “late.” Likewise, a child who knows “pin” may have trouble with “spin” because it involves a blend of consonants that may throw kids off. In Piaget's terminology, “concrete” operations are required for this highest level of reading. (p. 14)
This absence of developmental readiness for formal lessons in reading and math in early childhood may help to explain the downward trend of some students who are taught their letters, numbers, and other rote skills in early intervention programs such as Head Start. Research suggests that children who have had this type of early intervention tend to perform better in the early grades where rote skills are most helpful, but by the later grades, when the cognitive demands of literacy really kick in, they have washed out their gains (Currie & Thomas, 1995).
Beginning in 2003, the federal government began using tests in the Head Start program (Rothstein, 2004). Over half a million 4-year-olds sit for a 20- to 30-minute standardized test that covers their achievement in literacy and number skills. These tests are in addition to others used to assess program quality, conduct research, and evaluate the progress of children on a regular basis. At the kindergarten level, most states use standardized readiness tests and screening tests that are given before entering kindergarten and before graduating from kindergarten.
All of this testing is going on despite warnings from national organizations for young children suggesting that such practices should stop. In 1987, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) issued a position paper that cautioned against most forms of testing before the age of 8. Instead of standardized tests, NAEYC recommended the use of developmentally appropriate practices such as informal assessments, including teacher observations and portfolios. The National Association of School Psychologists (2005) noted in its position paper on early childhood assessment that “evidence from research and practice in early childhood assessment indicates that issues of technical adequacy are more difficult to address with young children who have little test-taking experience, short attention spans, and whose development is rapid and variable” (para. 2). The Association for Childhood Education International issued a position statement that “sets forth unequivocally the belief that all testing of young children in preschool and grades K–2 ... should cease” (Perrone, 1991, p. 141). It noted that standardized testing in the early years causes stress, does not provide useful information, leads to harmful tracking and labeling of children, causes teaching to the test, and fails to set conditions for cooperative learning and problem solving.
In the late 1980s, only 25 percent of licensed preschools in the United States had computers. Now, virtually every preschool has one. Due in large part to the research of MIT scientist Seymour Papert and others in the field of computer science, computer activities at the kindergarten level have been regarded as a cutting-edge learning tool. Kinder-LOGO, for example, is a software program based on Papert's work that lets students explore letters, numbers, colors, and shapes, and that is advertised as teaching spatial awareness, attributes, patterns, cause-and-effect relationships, and problem solving. Similarly, television has been considered a staple of early childhood education ever since Sesame Street
began broadcasting its letter and number shapes back in 1969. Yet when we remind ourselves of how young children think about the world, we realize that learning through technology may not be as developmentally appropriate as many educators apparently think it is.
Television and computer screens are not the sensory-rich environments that young children need in order to exercise their multimodal brains. History and education professor Douglas Sloan (1985) asked, “What is the effect of the flat, two-dimensional, visual, and externally supplied image, and of the lifeless though florid colors of the viewing screen, on the development of the young child's own inner capacity to bring to birth living, mobile images of his own?” (p. 8). Young children need hands-on interaction with the content of the real world. Instead, television and computer software offer virtually no real interaction with the world except for the manipulation of a mouse, joystick, or remote control device (Cuffaro, 1984).
Young children require safe and meaningful social and emotional experiences with peers and adults. Although computer advocates often point out that children can interact with classmates and the teacher while working with a software program, this argument does not justify the computer itself, just the interactions that occur around it. Perhaps the biggest problem with computers is that children can't play with them (in the deeper sense of the term) because the environment has been so highly structured and delimited by the software designer. Educator Jane Healy (1999), who has written extensively on the misuse of computers and television in early childhood education, notes that as a result of this, “teachers of young children lament the fact that many now have to be taught to play symbolically or pretend—previously a symptom only of mentally or emotionally disordered youngsters” (p. 64). In my own investigations, I've suggested that one consequence of the rise of technologies and the demise of play, especially in the early years, may be an increase in the number of children identified as having ADD/ADHD (Armstrong, 2003b, 2005). Most educators have abandoned their critique of high-tech tools in early childhood education programs because of the downward pressure of Academic Achievement Discourse on early childhood educators to use computers to help prepare kids for academic skills, and because of the intense corporate push to find new markets for high technology products (see Alliance for Childhood, 2000).
When my wife, who is a child psychotherapist, told me a few years ago that she was working with a kindergarten-age child who had been given two hours of homework to do that evening, I could hardly believe what I was hearing. “Child abuse” is what immediately came to mind. Now I've come to learn that homework is regularly handed out in kindergartens all over the country. One Minnesota school district, for example, has homework expectations for kindergarten students that include practicing the letters and their sounds, practicing sight words and word families that are part of the district's reading series, completing “Dear Family” homework sheets, and “practive” (Note: The district did not do its homework and spelled the word wrong on its Internet site!) putting sounds together to make words via blending (e.g., c-a-t). Academic Achievement Discourse has made this kind of practice perfectly acceptable to use with 5-year-olds in thousands of kindergartens across the country.
Fortunately, there are school districts out there that disagree, including a Virginia district that declares on its Web site: “In general we do not believe that homework is appropriate for kindergarten age students. This age learns through play and that is what we feel they should be doing at home” (Burbank Elementary School, n.d.).
Along with homework comes increasing demands for a longer school day. As one New York Times reporter observed: “More school districts are offering a full 7-hour day of kindergarten because they found that traditional three-hour programs did not allow time for the math, language arts, and science lessons that are becoming standard fare” (Zernike, 2000, p. A1). Naturally, something has to give, and it is usually nap time, recess, free play, and, tragically, the child himself. “After a full day,” the reporter wrote, “some parents report that their children arrive home at 3:45 and promptly put on their pajamas. One student falls asleep in the car on the way home, although he lives only two blocks from school” (Zernike, 2000, p. A1). Depriving young children of play experiences, the reverie of imagination, and open-ended explorations with the world around them contributes to the acceleration, fragmentation, and deterioration of young children's developmental possibilities.
Although early childhood education programs appear to be only increasing the academic load on young children, there are exemplary programs out there that model what developmentally appropriate learning should look like in the preschool and kindergarten years.
A good example is Roseville Community Preschool (RCP) in Roseville, California. Founded by parent and educator Bev Bos 32 years ago, RCP is a nonprofit, parent-participation community school that embraces play as its bottom line. The school rules are: “run, jump, dig, explore, talk, build, tear down, pour, yell, saw, hammer, paint, ride, imagine, sing, wonder, measure, ponder, play, be alone, examine, experiment, express, daydream” (Bos & Chapman, 2005, p. xv). Outside, there are spaces to run, sand piles, a block table, gardens, platforms in trees, and a room for mechanical things, including a ship structure with ladders and platforms, a mast, a wheel, a sail, and ropes and pulleys. Inside there is a fish tank, a loft, a cargo-net bridge, trucks, tubes, and tubs and gutters (for sand and water play). Centers for experimentation abound, such as a place of stones, sand, pipettes, food color, and water to combine and explore, pour, mold, and change. There is a dress-up room, an art area, and a child-sized room containing miniature beds, a stove, a refrigerator, a table, chairs, dolls, books, and cooking utensils.
As Bos puts it, “There is no teacher's voice controlling and directing here, just the occasional word of encouragement and the sharing of an idea, a dialogue, a conversation, a scribed story, or a song” (Bos & Chapman, 2005, p. 7). Wander around the school and you will see children painting, digging in sand, make-believe fishing in a puddle of water, building with blocks, putting on plays, planting seeds, hanging from trees, swinging on swings, playing hide-and-seek, exploring the natural surroundings, cooking with Play-Doh, experimenting with simple science materials, singing, and living. One visitor to the school reported: “I was fascinated to find a preschool with indoor and outdoor space that was, and still is, very different from preschools elsewhere. Why is this school different? It is different because children have freedom to become totally engrossed in play with water, ice, sand, paint, wood, and words. Time for wonder and exploring are foremost in the ways the teachers support the children. I always come away from this place with a feeling that it is unique and could be an example of the kind of surroundings in which children could thrive, grow and carry with them the strengths of who they are. The strong sense of self that they develop, I believe, will be part of their core for life” (Bos & Chapman, 2005, p. 5).
Another excellent example of how early childhood education can be practiced is seen in the Reggio Emilia schools. Situated in northern Italy, the town of Reggio Emilia first began to reform its school system in the ruins of World War II. It opened its first preschools in 1963. A central feature of the preschools is a focus on a child-centered approach to curriculum development. In Reggio Emilia schools, teachers look for cues from the children as to how a curriculum (they call it an “emergent curriculum”) will unfold.
For example, at one school, teachers noticed that many of the 5- and 6-year-old children were bringing dinosaur toys to school, and that the children's play sometimes spontaneously turned to dinosaurs. Teachers gathered together to discuss the possibilities among themselves, and then began to initiate with a small group of interested children an investigation into the world of dinosaurs. The children drew dinosaurs, talked about them, shared ideas from their drawings, and thought about questions relating to dinosaurs that had emerged from their earlier play experiences. Later on, they were asked where they could find out more information about dinosaurs, and based on their answers, they visited a local library and brought the books they had borrowed back to the atelier (a word meaning “artist's studio”), which served as the central locus for their project.
These books gave rise to more questions and led to the children inviting friends and relatives to visit the school and share what they knew about the subject (a special letter was composed and written by the dinosaur group). Over the next few weeks many people came by, including a father, a grandmother, and an expert from a local nature society, to share their knowledge. Children prepared questions for them in advance.
At the same time, children were making dinosaurs out of clay, painting them, and drawing them with chalk. One group of four boys who were making a large dinosaur out of clay began discussing how they could make a really huge dinosaur. This led to a discussion among teachers and children about how to build a really big dinosaur. Out of this conversation, the importance of determining what kind of dinosaur emerged. After more discussion, the children took a vote and Tyrannosaurus rex won by close election over
Stegosaurus. After spontaneously dividing into smaller groups, the children created three-dimensional models of the dinosaur. Then, emerging out of their curiosity with the actual size of a dinosaur, the children drew a two-dimensional representation of Diplodocus
that was 27 meters long on their school field. This process of free play, coupled with respect for and close attention by teachers to the thoughts, desires, and productions of children at play, served to create a learning environment of trust, excitement, and discovery. Reggio Emilia schools make children's spontaneous play the central event around which any learning revolves (see Edwards, Gandini, & Foreman, 1998).
A third example of developmentally appropriate early childhood education comes from Waldorf education (Steiner, 1995, 2000). Created more than 80 years ago by Austrian philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf schools emphasize artistic development, cross-cultural enrichment, and a deep regard for the imaginative and creative worlds of children. When a person walks into a Waldorf kindergarten it is like entering a fairy-tale wonderland (Armstrong, 1988). The classroom setting has a storybook look about it, with walls swirled in peach-toned and sky-blue pastels; a ceiling that is naturalistically curved rather than straight and perpendicular; furniture, carpets, and play equipment made from all natural materials; and plants and other living things in abundance.
Although many Waldorf schools are privately run, there are an increasing number of public charter schools using Waldorf methods. At John Morse Waldorf Methods School, which is part of the Sacramento City Unified School District in California, kindergarten children play at creating fantasy worlds from tree stumps, brightly colored scarves, and homemade dolls shaped to look like little elves, fierce dragons, and brave knights. The teacher assembles the children by sweetly singing their names (“Na-than”), and leads them in simple movement activities allowing them to become, for the moment, giants, pixies, and gnomes. As in Roseville Community Preschool and the Reggio Emilia schools, simple children's play is regarded as the most important activity going on in the classroom. Waldorf kindergartens use simple wooden blocks, unfinished wooden toys, natural fabrics for dress-up, and naturally made dolls with a minimum of features, so that the imagination of the child can fill in the details. Formal reading is not taught in kindergarten; in first grade children begin to learn the alphabet.
As one Waldorf educator put it: “There are indications that children who learn to read before age six or seven lose their early advantages, for they lose interest in reading and may eventually suffer burnout. This is not surprising when one thinks of how dull reading and learning are without benefit of imagination to bring them alive. In contrast, in my experience, the children who are the best players in the kindergarten and have the most active fantasy tend to become the most imaginative elementary pupils with the greatest interest in reading. They also tend to be the best adjusted emotionally, both as children and even as adolescents and adults” (Almon, 2004, para. 35).
The programs described above are only three examples of developmentally appropriate early childhood education (ECE) programs. There are many other examples around the world. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules to determine whether an ECE program is developmentally appropriate (such rules would probably be antithetical to Human Development Discourse), there are a general set of criteria that could be used to place a program on a continuum ranging from developmentally appropriate on the one end to developmentally inappropriate on the other. An early childhood education program is developmentally appropriate to the extent that it values spontaneous play, multisensory and hands-on learning, natural environments (e.g., lofts, gardens, plants, the arts, animals), and a child-centered approach to learning. Conversely, an ECE program is developmentally inappropriate to the extent that it doesn't contain the above elements, and instead emphasizes formal lessons in reading, writing, math, and other academic subjects; the use of high-tech tools such as computers and television; the assignment of homework; the employment of standardized testing; a long school day that minimizes nap time and other free-time experiences; and a teacher-centered approach to learning. The words “readiness,” “early intervention,” “academic kindergarten,” and “play with a purpose” are often red flags indicating that an early childhood education program has moved away from the Human Development Discourse end of the continuum and moved toward the Academic Achievement Discourse side (see Figure 3.1 for examples of developmentally appropriate and inappropriate practices in early childhood education).
Developmentally Inappropriate Practices
Developmentally Appropriate Practices
Artificial classroom environment
Long school day
Short school day
Elimination of naps or recess
Instruction in formal academic skills (e.g., reading, writing, mathematics, science)
Informal learning all the time
Parent involvement at school
Requiring seat work for long periods of time
Moving and learning most of the time
Careful documentation of children's play experiences and what they reveal about their inner and outer worlds
Computers, television, the Internet
No high-tech tools—lots of multisensory experiences instead
Scheduling of “classes” into short time units
Lots of unstructured play time
Division of school day into “courses”
Frequent opportunities for serendipity, spontaneity, and fun
Creation of instructional objectives for children
Honoring the integrity, wholeness, and wisdom of young children
Requiring all students to engage in the same activities at the same time
Letting children choose their own activities
Naturally, many (if not most) ECE programs combine aspects of both discourses. However, at a time when Academic Achievement Discourse is the overwhelming voice in education, the movement in many early childhood education programs is primarily toward a more formal, technological, and academic approach. That this should occur in a society that is already stressed and fragmented beyond belief is a tragedy of epic proportions.
Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Armstrong. All rights reserved.
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