As I start this journey of hybrid/homeschooling and also launch Mud & Moss, I have spent time reflecting on what it is that I believe regarding early education. These ideas have been shaped by my years in the classroom as well as through parenting, and I imagine they will continue to evolve as I learn along with my children. Thank you for taking a few moments to read. I hope you’ll feel like you know me better, and perhaps find inspiration for your own journey.
Fred Rogers famously said “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood”. If I had to distill all that I have come to believe about early education, it is simply that children learn best through play. To take it a step further, I believe in open-ended explorations because in order to foster creativity, children need to have the fewest possible limitations imposed on their play. Children learn best in an organic, contextual way that fosters a love of learning.
Being able to think creatively is at the root of problem-solving. Two of the most important things I believe children will need to be successful as adults are 1. the ability to think creatively and 2. an aptitude for interacting and collaborating with people from different walks of life. In early education then, that translates to lots of opportunities for creative, open-ended play, and collaborative learning with a focus on social-emotional development that gives children the tools to work through conflict. My job as parent/educator is to give them some of the language they might need and to help them through that process, but it is not to speak for them in a (well-meaning) attempt to resolve it.
This belief in the innate capability of children, and by extension the respect for children as individuals who are actively participating in the learning process, goes hand in hand with play-based education. If you are familiar with the Reggio-Emilia philosophy of education, you’ll see that this has been a strong influence on my thinking about children and learning. I see children as active participants in their own learning. Yes, children learn through play, but how much more learning can we unlock when we pay attention to what really sparks their interest and then look for ways to build on that?
So what does this look like in a learning environment, whether at home or in the classroom?
Let’s start with the physical environment, or in Reggio, the third teacher. In the same way that we as adults have an emotional response to our surroundings, so too do children. Learning spaces should be visually pleasing while allowing for exploration. I tend to shy away from toys that only do one thing and look for toys that spark imagination. I am starting to introduce more loose parts in our play. With loose parts, there is no prescribed intent or outcome, so creativity abounds.
Virtually anything that can be done inside can also be done outside, and where better to be than immersed in nature? So in addition to setting up in the inside environment, I try to be intentional about spending lots of time outside.
Children need lots of sensory input to learn about the world around them, and nowhere is that more prevalent than out in nature. We are designed to interact with the natural world, get our hands in the dirt, run our toes through the moss. Children need to be free to get messy–sand, water, mud, paint, etc. An additional benefit of spending time outside is that it creates a love and respect for nature and our planet. Yes, I am trying to create little conservationists because we naturally will protect what we love!
Pretend play is how children learn about the world and process things they don’t fully understand. One of my favorite things is when kids get lost in their imaginations. We have tons of dress-up/play kitchen/dramatic-play toys, but I also find it fascinating the other objects that they’ll bring into their play. There is still sometimes this temptation to say “that’s not what we use that for…”, but creativity can really flow when there are fewer limitations. Too often we unintentionally limit children by demonstrating how something should be used.
This lack of constraint also relates to reasonable risk-taking–the idea that children need to have the freedom to make mistakes and fall down. Yes, children need limits and boundaries and they will certainly test and push to find out what and where those are, but this has more to do with letting children fail in order to develop resilience. How we as caretakers respond to these situations also plays into how children react. I have been teaching myself to say something other than “be careful”, like– “does your body feel safe?” or simply stating what I’m concerned about–“that mud looks slippery”. Drawing attention to effort over outcome (“I can see how hard you’re working at that”) can also affect children’s development of resilience.
Books. So many books. I love reading with children, and it’s essential. Reading builds vocabulary, and vocabulary is one of the biggest predictors of success in reading. Learning to hear rhymes and then to develop them is also a key factor in early literacy, so in addition to hearing many books read aloud, singing songs and nursery rhymes is great. Storytelling is such a quintessentially human attribute that goes back to the beginning of time. Stories and books let us explore, dream, and learn.
Children need time for artistic and musical expression. There is something about creating that feeds the soul, and I find this to be just as true as an adult. Art exploration needs to be open-ended with lots of room for choice.
I feel like there’s a solid chance there will be a part 2 of this post at some point. I am continually learning and fine-tuning my thoughts on early education, and I’m sure as soon as I hit “publish” I’ll think of something else I wanted to add.
I’ll leave you with these final thoughts. This philosophy is what I know to be true for me and my children, and so that may look different for you. I have found that when I come across an idea that resonates with me, there is a process while I digest an idea, try it out, and then really internalize it to the point that I put it into practice on a regular basis. A key example of this for me is spending enough time outside–I know that I want the kids to have tons of outdoor time, but it gets hard to balance when the weather is uncooperative or I have a mountain of laundry. Let’s be good to ourselves. Let’s set beautiful, heart-felt goals, and forgive ourselves when we fall short.