Experience and Education. Initiative, Choices, and Decision Making
Experiences are designed so children can take the initiative and make choices and decisions. Children make choices from a variety of centers of interest. Once they have chosen a center in which to work, they make decisions about which materials from the center they will use. They may experiment and try something new, or they may simply decide to repeat an action, using the same materials over and over again.
Either way, children experience success because they select experiences that match their own interests, needs, and developmental level. In this way, children solve the problem of the match, or zone of proximal development, of which Vygotsky (1986) wrote. Vygotsky emphasized the zone of proximal development as the place where the child is close to developing strategies for problem solving or completing a task. The assistance of an expert, another child who knows how to do it or an adult, will push the child forward. When children are able to choose their own experiences, they are, as Bredekamp (1998) says, “identifying their own zone of proximal development.” By doing so, they are ready for the questions or suggestions of experts who may be able to take children further along in their learning than they could go by themselves.
Children are asked to take the initiative throughout the day, not just during center time. Real problems that arise from living together give children the opportunity to take the initiative and make additional decisions and choices (Dewey, 1944). In one childcare setting, a group of 3-year-olds seemed unable to take part in clean-up time. After one particularly difficult and chaotic clean-up time, the teacher gathered the children around her and asked, “What happened?” One child replied, “We ran and threw things.” Another said, “It was a mess.” “Yes,” the teacher agreed, “but what are we going to do about this? We must get our room cleaned so we can have lunch.” Taking the initiative, one child said, “I’ll put the dolls in the house”; another, “Casey and me put the blocks away.” Others chimed in, and together they put the room back in order.
Children are also given the opportunity to experience the consequences of their choices. Teachers do not always protect them from making mistakes or from disappointments when they know the result of children’s decision making will be less than positive (Dewey, 1944; McAfee & Leong, 2001).
By experiencing the consequences of their choices, children have a chance to reflect, to think about their actions, to determine which they would change, and to decide how or why the decision was or was not effective. In this way they develop the ability to think for themselves, which is so necessary if children are to become functioning citizens of a democratic society.
In one childcare center, Calan put the blocks away by himself as the other children listened to a story. When asked why he was not listening to the story with the other children, he replied, “It’s logical consequences. You see, I didn’t put the blocks away during clean-up time, so the logical consequence is I have to put them away now.”
Dewey saw another purpose for asking children to take the initiative, to make choices and decisions (1944). He wanted teachers to use more “stuff” in schools. He asked teachers to include more raw materials and “stuff” so children could develop the ability to think. He believed that raw materials such as wood, clay, and paints—without any predetermined end or goal for their use—push children into thinking.
Given blocks, paper, and paint, children must figure out what to do with the materials, how to do it, and determine when their goals have been achieved. They are the ones who have to monitor their own thinking and doing. They are the ones who, when failing to achieve their goal, must decide how to change their actions or their plans. When they reach their goal, they are the ones who experience the joy of achievement and the satisfaction that comes from thinking and learning. Learning to take the initiative teaches children not to be dependent on others, but to develop an independence of thought necessary for them to become productive members of a democratic society (Seefeldt, 2004).
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