Guiding Young Children's Play and Learning
The first step in planning how you will guide children's learning experiences in any curriculum area is to be clear about your goals. What is your vision for how the learning experiences you offer will help children become well-adjusted, self-directed, productive members of society? Tap into the best thinking of researchers and educators who specialize in these areas to help you think beyond the immediate and obvious. For example, goals for art include improving eye-hand coordination, encouraging sensory exploration, and learning simple concepts (e.g., colors, shapes). At a deeper level, goals for art also include learning to use materials such as paint, clay, or drawing pens as “languages” to create and communicate meaning (Gandini, 2005), developing an awareness and appreciation of beauty, solving complex problems, and learning to see things from multiple perspectives (Eisner, 2002).
With regard to language arts and literacy in particular, much has been written about the need to foster children's interest in the sounds and rhythms of speech (phonological awareness), their understanding that print conveys meaning (print awareness), and their ability to draw connections between letters and sounds (alphabet knowledge) (National Reading Panel, 2000). The overall goal which lends meaning to all these components is to enhance children's ability and—just as important—their desire to understand and use oral and written language.
Goals for mathematics in early childhood include developing a concept of number, one-to-one correspondence, counting with meaning, sorting and classifying, comparing quantities, identifying shapes and describing spatial relationships. The overarching goal is to foster in children a “search for sense and meaning, patterns and relationships, order and predictability” (Richardson & Salkeld, 1995. p. 23). Success in mathematics is not only the ability to “do math,” but also confidence in one's ability and willingness to apply that ability critically.
Kilmer and Hofman (1995, p. 45) use the verb sciencing instead of the noun science, because they perceive science for young children as an active process rather than a body of knowledge to be absorbed. They outline three broad goals for sciencing: (1) to develop innate curiosity about the world; (2) to broaden procedural and thinking skills for investigating the world, solving problems, and making decisions; and (3) to increase knowledge of the natural world.
You probably noticed that each of these sets of goals included not only specific knowledge and skills to be gained, but also dispositions such as eagerness to figure things out, confidence in the ability to gain new knowledge or use new skills, and what might be described as a joyful approach to learning. They require you to look beyond the immediate, short-term results toward the lifelong impact of the experiences you provide for children. These goals transcend artificial boundaries between subjects and remind us to view learning as a holistic process. Remember, too, that in addition to these subject-specific goals, you can help children meet more general developmental goals through the learning experiences you provide. The child playing before a mirror in the dress-up corner who discovers she is still the same person, no matter how she transforms her face or alters her appearance with costumes, is establishing identity, a major task of early childhood. Regardless of topic, children who set their own tasks and carry them out are practicing initiative, another major developmental goal in early childhood.
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