We agree with Piaget that young children learn best through play. “To understand is to invent,” he wrote in 1973. “Young children learn the most important things, not by being told, but by constructing knowledge for themselves in interaction with the physical world and with other children – and the way they do this is by playing” (Jones & Reynolds, 1992).
By actively observing children at play, our teachers learn about the developmental progress of individual children and what skills and knowledge they are working on. They watch carefully for ways to extend each child’s thinking and learning within child-initiated activities. They pose problems, ask questions, make suggestions, add complexity to tasks, and provide information, materials and assistance, as needed, to enable each child to consolidate learning and move to the next level of functioning. Although well aware that there are times when direct instruction methods are needed, our teachers much more commonly engage the children in exploration and discovery.
The teacher’s role in a child centered learning environment is that of a collaborative learner, a facilitator, an extender of the children’s learning, arranging the learning environment to encourage choices and allowing the children to work independently. In addition, the teacher interacts with the children while encouraging problem solving and language experiences through the use of open ended language and questions. The teacher also spends a great deal of time observing the children during their play and can then plan activities that extend the interests of the children
Learning centers are set up in the classrooms so that small groups and individual children can choose to explore constantly varying materials related to the study of math, science, art, and language, while teachers observe and interact with the children and the materials. In most rooms, centers include a sensory table for age-appropriate experimentation with sand, rice, seeds and beans, water or other materials, a block center for large motor exploration, an area for use of manipulatives such as Legos and Mobilos that encourage development of fine motor skills, a writing area and art center with a table, easels, and a changing selection of writing and drawing implements and molding materials to maintain attention, a drama/housekeeping center, and a quiet, comfortable book corner. Topics of study are often carried outside to one of our two outdoor play areas or on community walks through our historic campus neighborhood.
It is our goal to make every activity at each learning center in every classroom Child-Centered, Play-Based, Open-Ended, Process-Oriented, and Developmentally Appropriate at all times. We know that in elementary school and beyond, teachers will have specific outcomes in mind when they create an activity or give an assignment. In contrast, young children’s time in a high-quality early childhood setting should be structured to maximize their opportunities for open-ended play with engaging, developmentally appropriate toys and materials.
We view curriculum as everything that happens during our time with children. We believe that each moment offers opportunities to explore relationships and to create a community that nurtures children, teachers, and families. Each moment holds a range of feelings and interests. There are always questions to pursue, hypotheses to investigate, and discoveries to celebrate. Curriculum happens all day: in every routine, action, interaction, and setting. In fact, we believe that the environment—whether indoors, on the playground, in the neighborhood, or on GU’s richly diverse campus—is each child’s third teacher (the first two being parents and classroom teachers).
We wholeheartedly believe that children’s play is not an alternative to learning, but is the way children learn. Children construct their own knowledge; teachers facilitate that process with guidance and support.
- Piaget, J. The Child and Reality: Problems of Genetic Psychology. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1973.
- Jones, E. & Reynolds, G. The play’s the thing: Teachers’ roles in children’s play. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992.
- Bredekamp, Sue, and Carol Copple. Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1997.
- Botanic Garden Children’s Center, Cambridge, MA: http://www.botanic-gardens.org/teaching_staff.html