The Scope of Early Childhood Education (page 3)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010


It may surprise you to know that publicly funded programs for 5-year-old children are a relatively new option in many states. Many public schools either did not provide kindergarten or offered it only for parents who were able to pay for the service. Currently, only 40 states mandate kindergarten education for all students. In the remaining states, school districts are encouraged to offer this option, but are not required to do so (Griffith, Kauerz, & McMaken, 2003).

Traditional kindergartens in the United States were half-day programs designed to help children develop social, emotional, and cognitive skills through a play-oriented experience. Despite the many benefits of this focus, many programs today are more academic and present a curriculum that looks much like that of the first-grade classroom. One reason for this more academic focus is the increased pressure from state and federal agencies to improve the literacy, science, and mathematical understandings of young children. Federal legislation, such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, provide financial incentives to schools that make good academic progress as measured on standardized tests and penalize those that demonstrate poor performance. Consequently, kindergarten teachers spend more of their classroom time engaged in these more academic subjects and have fewer opportunities for other very valuable experiences. In part to accommodate this more academic focus, many kindergarten classrooms are now full-day programs that meet three to five days a week. Research on this option suggests that the longer school day is beneficial when teachers provide a curriculum that allows children time to learn playfully about their world (Kauerz, 2005).

Primary Education

Grades 1 through 3 in elementary schools are referred to as primary education and have been a part of American schooling from colonial times. For most of this period, the methods and materials for teaching at this level have mirrored those used with older elementary students. Instruction was teacher-directed and included mostly small- and large-group teaching combined with independent work for students.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, the popularity of theorists such as Piaget (Flavell, 1963), Bruner (1966), and Dewey (1929) led to new teaching strategies for primary education. Educators began to view young elementary students as more like preschool and kindergarten children in their thinking rather than older elementary students. More opportunities to learn through hands-on manipulation of objects and interaction with peers were implemented. Although instruction at the primary level remains teacher-directed in a majority of classrooms, more primary teachers are starting to engage in a variety of interesting teaching and learning strategies. The multiage classroom, in which two or three grades are grouped together for instruction, is one option being tried. For example, rather than having separate groups of 5-, 6-, and 7-year-old children, students are mixed together in the same room. Multiage classrooms can be traced back to the one-room schoolhouses that existed in America until the early part of the 20th century. A renewed interest in this option began in the 1980s. In these classrooms, younger children learn from their interactions with older classmates, and older students reinforce their own understandings as they work with younger students. Because teachers have many of the same students for more than one year, there tend to be stronger teacher–student relationships in multiage classrooms. Both research and practice suggest that these classrooms enhance child development (Carter, 2005; Kinsey, 2001). Multiage classrooms produce students who have more positive attitudes toward schooling, demonstrate stronger leadership skills, have greater self-esteem, and engage in fewer aggressive behaviors.

Other creative options being tried include looping, in which the teacher remains with the same students for several years. For example, a first-grade teacher could work with the same students from first through third grades before “looping” back to a new group of first-grade students at the end of the 3-year period. Using an integrated curriculum, in which mathematics, reading, science, and social studies are all learned simultaneously through the teaching of specific themes, is another example of a creative option being used in the primary grades. An example of a theme that may be of interest to a group of second-grade students is the topic of hurricanes. As children read about them, write their own stories, learn about the impact of hurricanes on people around the nation, and create graphs of hurricane activity, they are engaged in meaningful integrated learning.  Creating classroom centers where children can independently explore materials and activities of their own choosing in playful ways is yet another strategy used in many primary classrooms.

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