The Questions You Wanted Answered About ECE

What ECE professionals wanted to know

When education leader Peter DeWitt invited me to participate in one of his online discussions, he told me that EDWeek readers had been asking for a segment on early childhood education. They had questions about the effect of the pandemic on ECE, but they also wanted to discuss the field in general.

What was different about this interview was that potential listeners were invited to share their questions for the panelists in advance. Peter then sent the questions to me and to co-panelist Steven Barnett, Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. And because I feel most comfortable with a “cheat sheet,” I wrote answers to the questions I felt most comfortable with. (Some were simply beyond my range of knowledge.)

I’m sharing the questions, along with my answers, here. (We didn’t get to all of these during the conversation.) The answers here are brief. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to expand on them with Peter and Dr. Barnett.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please share them in the comments so we can continue this important discussion.

There is a lot of criticism of Early Childhood programs, why is that?

Early childhood education doesn’t look like it’s supposed to these days. Children are sitting and doing worksheets instead of being engaged in active learning. And they’re asked to meet unrealistic expectations and meet arbitrary standards! This isn’t what early childhood education is supposed to be.

What early childhood approaches support a wide range of student learning and social-emotional needs? What does this look like between teacher and student?

Nature intended young children to learn through movement and play — and these are their preferred methods of learning! So, any approach should involve a healthy dose of movement and play. I mean, why would we want to teach children in any way other than their preferred way?

Also, research tells us that the more senses used in the learning process, the more information we retain – and that sitting increases fatigue and reduces concentration. So why do we have them sitting and listening or sitting and doing worksheets all day?

In terms of social/emotional needs, I’d like to see a focus on cooperative, vs. competitive, activities. We have a lot more opportunity in life for cooperation, and yet we don’t help children acquire cooperative skills.

What should a high-quality Early Childhood program look like?

It should be based on a knowledge of child development and how children learn!

There should be a blend of guided and free play, as many child-initiated activities as possible, activities that follow the children’s interests, and no worksheets and screens!

Can you speak to the importance of play-based learning and how the need is greater now than ever? What impact could play-based learning have on traditional kindergarten classrooms as we enter the fall, and of course, moving forward post covid / year of virtual learning?

As I mentioned, Nature meant children to learn through play. When we deprive them of it, we keep them from learning optimally.

During and post-Covid, it’s essential that children have the chance to play! It’s how they work out their feelings and cope with things they’re not yet ready to understand or articulate.

Early childhood expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige has said: When children don’t have the chance to work out their feelings through play, where do those feelings go? And that’s an important question.

Beyond that, if we want our kindergarten classrooms to be developmentally appropriate and someplace the children want to be, they should be places of play and joy!

Music educator Jaques-Dalcroze wrote: “I look upon joy as the most powerful of all mental stimuli.” We have to stop thinking of classrooms as places for rigor, making them someplace that stresses the children!

How can we best convey to others that just because a child is willingly doing a teacher-chosen, obligatory activity, without crying and with a pleasant attitude, that it is not necessarily playful or joyful learning? I too often hear “Oh but they loved those worksheets! They like making the craft like I showed them!”

Children want very much to please the important adults in their lives, so they’ll try to comply with the wishes of those adults. Girls, in particular, want to please. But is that what we want for children? Compliance? Why are we trying to create robots, or to fit children into molds?

Shouldn’t we be offering an education that helps children discover their passions? Shouldn’t we be offering an education that teaches them to think and solve problems? Problem solving is the one skill we can be certain children will need as they grow up in this ever-changing world.

How can we as a school convince parents that it is not only in their best interests, but their child’s to send their 2- to 5-year-old child to school?

Unless it’s a school like I described earlier, I’m not sure that it is in their child’s best interests. I hear far too many stories about little ones who are experiencing stress, anxiety, frustration, and even depression due to the pressures put on them. Finnish children don’t have formal schooling until they’re 7. Prior to that their lives are play-based. And they don’t have the issues our children have.

Before COVID, children spending too much time playing/learning on devices was an issue. What should the balance be between play and time on devices?

I’d be happy if there were no devices in the early childhood classroom and if parents encouraged actual play during the time their children are now playing digitally.

How do we relax academic expectations and focus on the social-emotional wellbeing of our children?

As Nike says: Just do it! I know it’s easier said than done, but teachers need to push back when they’re asked to do things that aren’t right for the children.

[Sidebar: This was an entirely too-brief response, but I’ve addressed this idea and others in blog posts, including here and here.]

Working with 5-year-old children is a challenge. What’s the best way to explain coronavirus to them?

First, ask if the child has any questions about the sickness going around. Then follow the child’s lead. Don’t offer any more detail than he or she wants or needs.

Always speak calmly. Security is a young child’s primary need, so be as reassuring as possible. And offer the children as much control as possible, as that’s something they don’t have a lot of at that age! In the case of Covid, control comes with knowing you can take preventative measures such as washing hands (which we can make fun, maybe with a piggyback song) and wearing a mask.

What about extending the school year [to address concerns about gaps or losses in learning in children]?

NO! Let them have some time to be children! (Read my extended thoughts on learning loss here.)

How do you see the field of education adapting to give children the in-person contact they need and meeting their need for unconfined physical movement and play for the best learning.?

Offer as much outdoor learning as possible. Policymakers and administrators need to review the research regarding recess and stop eliminating it in favor of “instructional time.” That’s counterproductive!

What can we do as a district this summer to help our early childhood students?

Make the playgrounds available to them!

What can parents do at this time?  I have many asking me, because they are afraid their children will miss important milestones.

Take the screens away from them and let them engage in free play. And, to the extent possible, educate the parents about the learning that occurs through play.

When things [get] back to normal, how to get these kids feel comfortable with their peer group?

I recommend doing as many cooperative activities as possible. They give children a chance to discover how good it feels to be and work together.

Remote learning is difficult for younger children, what are suggestions for effective instruction with online delivery?

Active learning with lots of breaks — and keep it short! Virtual learning can’t and shouldn’t be the same as in-person learning!

Pre-Covid, young children were already showing signs of sensory deprivation and less socialization, due to too much screen-time, parents being on cell-phones (and not interacting with young children enough), not playing and using their bodies enough, etc. Do you think this will worsen or improve as a result of Covid?

It has been my sincerest hope that parents who are letting their children play will see the value of it and begin to advocate for less screen use and “instructional time” in their children’s schools!

To watch the discussion, and to hear Steven’s and Peter’s thoughts, click here.


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