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Confidence, Grace, and Joy in Early Childhood Education

Why is non-traditional schooling not standard in the United States, while many other countries embraced this movement long ago? This is a question that many parents and professionals in the early education field often ask. To me and many of my colleagues, it seems the obvious best choice when it comes to educating young children (birth through age eight); we know the research, we’ve seen the test scores, and we’ve watched children lose their love of learning earlier and earlier, but traditional schooling is still the default in America.

I feel that we are stuck in the traditional schooling mentality for several reasons, including time, proper school funding, availability of teacher and parent education, high teacher-to-child ratios, large group sizes, and societal pressure to follow the rules and do everything “by the book.” I believe it is time for us to bite the bullet and push for change. The children deserve it, and the future requires it.

At The Mays School, we use the Reggio Emilia Approach (Reggio) to education and classroom design. Reggio is a non-traditional education system that was founded in Italy. We believe that children should learn through quality interactions with teachers and peers, have access to wonderful open-ended play materials, learn through an inquiry-based emergent curriculum at the child’s own pace, and have the ability to ask questions and expand on topics.

In a traditional classroom, the students’ activities typically cover one subject matter at a time in a very isolated curricular environment. Traditional teachers tend to think of subjects as stand-alone topics that are covered in school, and that the students have to learn in order to get a good grade, feel proud of their accomplishments, and move on to the next grade level.

In a traditional classroom, around age five or six, we typically start hearing children say that they “do not like reading” or are “bad at math.” These feelings tend to follow a child from early education all the way into adulthood. In reality, it is impossible to be bad at math. Math is all around us each day; patterns, schedules, calendars, routines, driving a car, grocery shopping—all of these things are math! It is the specific abstract concept that was most likely introduced before the child was developmentally ready to process it that causes these life-long feelings.

In a Reggio-inspired classroom, we do not categorize learning domains for the children. We simply provide the right environment and interactions for the children to spark an interest and help them expand on topics as they are developmentally ready for them. We also understand that learning domains are typically intertwined together—children are natural learners and love to expand on their interests and work as a community to solve simple problems.

We believe that learning should be a fluent process, and that each child will approach it a little differently. We do not push children to read, write, or recite math problems before they are showing an interest in the activity and are developmentally ready to accomplish these tasks. This is where parents typically ask me about creating a “competitive spirit” in the child to help them “strive for excellence” in the future. However, I strongly believe that young children should not be put in any competitive situations before age eight. Their brains are simply not ready for the pressure, and poorly understood competition can lead to underperforming, losing interest in difficult tasks, an unnecessary sense of failure, and a lack of motivation to keep working hard and improving. This will not help them to create a competitive, or happy, spirit.

We want children to build up confidence, a strong work ethic, resilience to hardship and challenge, and to know that their hard work will create competency. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life.”

I’ve researched and visited some of the most successful early education schools in the world, from Scandinavia to Asia, and they all have one big common factor—the children are thought of as competent, capable, and full of potential to be life-long learners. The common goal is to help children learn how to learn, not dictate what and when they learn every little thing. The curriculum should support the child’s interests, developmental stages, and motivation to learn.

In the United States, we tend to think of children as small, innocent, needing help, and overall “less than,” and then we wonder why our children are growing into adults that require constant supervision and guidance. At MAYS, we are striving to make big changes in a small school. We will continue to push against the current, write articles, train teachers, dedicate funds, and educate parents. The child should form the curriculum versus the curriculum forming the child.

We always keep in mind a quote from Magda Gerber: “Earlier is not better.” When a child accomplishes something that they are cognitively and physically ready for, they do it with confidence, grace, and joy.


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