Teaching and learning in the early years, a topic that has been debated over many decades yet involves many grey areas even up to date. Having gained primary education within Sri Lanka, and later to be specialized in education in early years from a country like Australia, it always haunted my mind, “are we practicing the best education method for our young children?” It is questionable.
Let’s start with education in the early years, the most significant age of human cognitive development. There are countless amount of theorists who presented perspectives of the learning in the early years, the development of the human brain, cognitive skills, emotional skills, etc. Are all the early childhood educators aware of these theoretical approaches such as maturation, psychodynamic, psychosocial, cognitive, behaviorist, ecological and information processing to begin with, in order to identify the necessary teaching techniques to be incorporated into the learning of children? Do our early childhood educators have access to gain knowledge in these areas and was it ever considered as important at all? We all are aware that early childhood teachers teach children to learn what they and the parents expect them to learn, but it is questionable whether any of them are aware of the purpose of educators in the early years, to do is to guide children to reach their level of proximal development.
Having a glimpse at the Australian education system, the key that drives early years learning in Australia is Play-based learning. Let’s examine this. Why would children engage in play? Is play-based learning better than other education methods for the early years? The above theories initiated by Piaget was the initiative to place the importance on the play, for cognitive development of children, to learn better through social interactions, independent explorations, risk play opportunities, etc.. Play is a wide area involved in the learning within early years, that benefits children’s development in many ways. From literacy and numeracy skills, to be able to regulate their emotions and towards being able to develop critical thinking and problem solving, play is the best mode of learning in the early years. Children should be provided with open-ended experiences to stimulate their learning rather than spoon-feeding the content of set learning goals to develop the best according to research.
Early learning settings in Australia are designed incorporating “Play” in learning in the early years. Areas that are designed to cater knowledge to children using open-ended experiences, which are based on children’s interests, that are recorded during informal conversations and several specific observational methods, with extended opportunities for interactions and communication are the best modes and techniques of teaching in the early education in Australia. Children don’t always need direct teaching but they need scaffolding, to learn and reach the level of cognitive development within their abilities. This need for scaffolding differs from child to child, depending on their individual intellectual abilities. The learning experiences have to be modified, differentiated, and specified to meet the learning needs and capacities of each child to support them with learning. This is the prime responsibility of an educator in the early years. As long as an educator is competent enough to identify the learning needs of children, how they learn, and the diversifications that are required. The development and learning in the early years isn’t a competition and is not about who reaches there first but supporting every child through that journey, with moderated learning goals as educators.
Being an early childhood educator/teacher isn’t easy as teaching the letters of the alphabet or the numbers, but it is a whole process where we shape a human being, that will grow and enter life with that foundation that we lay for them. It is great if our early education authorities could compare our practices with countries like Finland, where the education system is recognized as the best. Their children start education by the age of 7 instead of very early years. The settings and educators use many innovative experiences such as forest schools, risk play, inquiry-based learning, etc to facilitate learning in the early years rather than tests and paperwork. All these stimulations that children receive when they are young and are experiencing the best stage of their absorbent mind, is the period during which that they will develop their social, emotional, and cognitive skills to be used later. All these areas collaboratively produce a human being that is positively developed.
We might not be able to change the whole system of education within a day, but we can change this starting from our classroom or setting. Expose children to experiences that stimulate and facilitate their learning, create learning spaces rich in inclusivity and open-ended, motivate them to engage in peer interactions and communicate their emotions, build their critical thinking and problem-solving skills through risk play, let them explore, question and learn, support their sense of belonging so that they will create their identity, build their self-esteem to become who they dream of, instead of stereotyping every child with a dream of a doctor, engineer, lawyer, etc. Teach them to follow their passion, to be driven by their dreams, for that’s what they will be grateful to you one day as their inspiration for life but not just their teacher!