Theoretical Research-Based Principles and Practices
For a long time the jury was out regarding the best approaches to childcare and early childhood education. In the last two decades, however, the verdict has been decided. More and more research confirms that children’s healthy development and success in school is heavily influenced by their involvement in a quality childcare program (Peisner-Feinberg 1999). During the first five years of life, the emotions a child feels, as well as what a child sees, hears, and experiences, are ingredients for brain development. These critical years provide a small portal of educational opportunity that will impact a child the rest of his or her life. For this reason, there is a compelling responsibility to offer to curriculum materials that developmentally impact the quality of care and education of young children.
Developmentally Appropriate Practices:
Developmentally appropriate programs that address both the age levels of the child and the individual cognitive needs give children a higher quality learning environment. According to Mantzicoponulos, Pritchett and Morlock, young children exposed to developmentally appropriate activities and programs seemed more confident and progressive in their cognitive skills (Mantzicopoulos, Pritchett, and Morlock 1994). Most teachers endorse the theory of developmentally appropriate practices, but often struggle with practical implementation. In reviewing the research of appropriate developmental practice implementation, many researchers agree that professional preparation designed to help teachers implement these practices is the most effective (Dunn and Kontos 1997). A curriculum that offers professionally developed lesson-plan outlines and activity ideas effectively supports the teacher in implementing developmentally appropriate practices in the classroom.
Balance Between Child-Initiated and Teacher-Facilitated Activities:
The pendulum of research has swung back and forth between a totally didactic approach to preschool age learning and an entirely child-initiated approach. Research supports that children scored higher on measures of cognitive development when allowed to initiate activities (Marcon 1992). For example, Huston-Stein found that programs with more child-selected activities proved to be more effective in stimulating imagination, promotion of staying on task, and independent thinking (Huston-Stein 1977). Others also found that more didactic academically oriented programs produce greater short-term cognitive gains than other models (Gersten 1986). Lazar and Darlington state, “The results indicate that high quality programs with careful design and supervision, using a variety of strategies, can be effective, and that these various strategies can be effective for different types of low income children” (Lazar and Darlington 1982). Further research also supports that children need both guided and independent practice with new concepts and skills (Barnett and Escobar 1987). A recent research study of selected sites compared children in poverty with children identified as high socioeconomic status using a curriculum model balanced between child-initiated activities and teacher-facilitated activities. In this study, students in poverty showed gains equal to the students from higher socioeconomic conditions (Sinclair 2001). The right balance of child-initiated activities and teacher-facilitated activities must be sought when designing programs. A curriculum that is balanced in both child-initiated activities and teacher-facilitated activities will better serve the children in receiving a quality early childhood education.
Thematic or integrated instruction can be both developmentally appropriate and engaging to the preschool child’s needs and interests. Thematic units allow the teacher to incorporate a variety of concepts into a topic area that is interesting, appropriate, and gives meaning and context to these concepts (Morrow 1997). Themes allow the teacher to integrate language, writing, listening, speaking, math, science, art, music, dramatic play, and culture into activities that are both meaningful and appropriate (Savignon 1997). The Indiana Department of Education recommended the use of a thematic approach to show the integration of subjects (reading, mathematics, language arts, science/fine arts) and skills to create a context for learning. In their approach, there are six major topics in the guide, each with subtopics (Indiana Department of Education 1990). Beginning with the needs and interests of the children, learning develops from meaningful experiences important to young children. The theme-designed curriculum provides the classroom an integrated context for these experiences to be shared and explored. Themes also lend themselves well to accommodating a variety of individual levels and needs and creative problem solving. A curriculum that accommodates a variety of developmental levels as well as individual differences in young children sets the stage for problem solving (Bredekamp 1987). In a position statement, NAEYC recommends that connections across developmental domains be recognized in curriculum planning (NAEYC Position Statement 1997). According to NAEYC, a preschool curriculum should support children’s development in all domains. NAEYC further recommend that because developmental domains are interrelated, preschool educators should utilize these interrelationships to correlate children’s learning experiences in ways that help children make meaningful connections across domains. For example, when teaching letter recognition and/or alphabet knowledge, thematic instruction allows the teacher to help children build connections between letters and the current topics of study. Letters are tied to a theme in a context that weaves the letter through a child-related appropriate topic. Alphabet recognition within a thematic context can also be taught in relation to phonemic awareness. A thematic planned curriculum lends itself extremely well to the connection of developmental domains for young children. Choices, decision-making, and a curriculum framework that integrates learning are especially appropriate for young learners (Katz 1989). According to J. Britz, Donna Ogle’s K-W-L (what you KNOW, what you WANT to know, and what you have LEARNED) support thematic learning for the young child (Britz 1992). Themes, units, webbing, and the KWL method are all ways of organizing curriculum that can support an age appropriate learning environment (Britz 1992). A thematic approach facilitates cooperative learning and yet promotes diverse ideas in a unified context.
Phonemic Awareness/Beginning Sounds:
Research has validated the premise that preschoolers who are exposed to beginning sounds coupled with alphabet recognition show significant acceleration in their later development of reading acquisition (Stanovich 1993-94). Phonological awareness is not only correlated with learning to read, but research indicates phonological awareness appears to play a causal role in reading acquisition. Phonological awareness is a foundational ability underlying the learning of spelling-sound correspondences (Stanovich 1993-94). A review of the research suggests that it is critical for children to be able to link phonemic awareness to the recognition of letters (Adams 1990). Phonemic awareness is both a prerequisite for and a consequence of learning to read (Yopp 1992). At the preschool level, children should be engaged in activities that direct their attention to the sounds in words, such as rhyming, singing, and alliteration games (Spector 1995). A thematic curriculum can easily supply a child-related context for children to associate sounds and letters to topics that are intriguing, fun, and of interest to the child (Morrow 2001).
Letter Recognition/Alphabet Knowledge:
Alphabet knowledge, specifically letter naming, has historically been among the reading readiness skills used for the prediction of reading achievement (Snow 1998). J.S. Chall found that a pre-reader’s letter name knowledge was a strong predictor of success in early reading achievement (Chall 1967). Adams notes, “The best predictor of a student’s year-end reading achievement was their entering ability to recognize and name upper and lowercase letters” (Adams 1990). Adams also states, “Familiarity of the letters of the alphabet and awareness of the speech sounds, or phonemes, to which they correspond are strong predictors of the ease or difficulty with which a child learns to read” (Adams 1990). Scanlon and Vellutino, in their district-wide study of kindergartners, found that letter knowledge was as strong a predictor on its own as other predictors combined (Scanlon and Vellutino 1996). One of the basic criteria for learning to read is knowledge of the alphabetic principle-that is, the ability to map spoken sounds to written letters. This skill requires phonological knowledge (the ability to manipulate sounds in spoken words) and alphabet knowledge. As previously mentioned in the section on “Thematic Instruction,” letter recognition is best taught when tied to a theme in a context that weaves the letter through a child-related appropriate topic. The thematic conduit exposes the child to the letter in a context that he or she can relate to and be familiar with. Alphabet recognition within a thematic context can also be easily taught in relation to a phonemic developmental approach.
Language and Literacy Concepts:
Children articulate language when their first efforts are encouraged and reinforced. According to the National Research Council, language development during the preschool years that includes development of vocabulary and language forms used for oral and written communication is an important domain of preparation for formal reading instruction (National Research Council 1998). Literacy development is enhanced by strong oral abilities as oral language plays a vital role in a child’s ability to anticipate and verify written words in context (Snow 1983). Children should be encouraged to talk to each other and to their teachers about the activities in which they are engaged during the school day. Materials such as word cards, puppets, and animal stories can be used as conversation companions and language stimulators (Morrow 2001). Children can also be encouraged to create and tell stories of their own. Studies suggest that adult-child discourse is important in the preschool class, as is the amount of such interaction. One study found that the amount of cognitively challenging talk that children experience is correlated with the amount of time they talk with adults (Smith & Dickinson 1994). Children want and need individualized attention (Kontos & Wilcox-Herzog 1997). A curriculum that supports the preschool teacher with appropriate activity ideas, suggested plan outlines and usable in-class materials is likely to increase the amount of time that the teacher can interact with each child. Classrooms enhanced with visible print allow children more opportunity to incorporate literacy into their dramatic play (Neuman and Roskos 1997). The teacher to model and explain literacy and language concepts can use materials such as posters, pictures, little books, and big books (Morrow 1997). A curriculum that makes these materials readily available to the teacher enhances his or her interaction time with each child and increases the opportunity for language and literacy development.
The challenge for an early childhood educator is to present an effective multicultural education foundation by means of which all children can learn to accept themselves and others. Multicultural education should not only teach children about other groups or countries, but should also help children become accustomed to the idea that there are many lifestyles, languages, cultures, and points of view. The purpose of multicultural curriculum in the early childhood classroom is to attach positive feelings to multicultural experiences so that each child will feel included and valued, and will feel friendly and respectful toward people from other ethnic and cultural groups (Dimidjian 1989). The early childhood teacher’s disposition in promoting everyone’s culture is also a factor in the child’s development of a multicultural perspective. A curriculum that supports and aids the teacher will only serve to enhance the teacher’s disposition in cultural awareness. Teachers can help eliminate stereotypes by introducing material and activities that enable children to learn both the uniqueness and similarities of all individuals. Circle activities such as the reading of appropriate folktales or the highlighting of appropriate cultural events and customs can be a way to foster group identity, interests, and acceptance ( Dixon and Fraser 1986). Although the relaying of folktales and cultural practices has its place, hasty or generalized conclusions about a culture should not be drawn on the basis of its folktales, which often portray fantasy or old customs. Appropriate details of stories and customs can be integrated into activities that will help children enjoy and appreciate the culture of others, and be proud of their own culture (Kaminski and Sierra 1991).
One pillar of any successful early childhood curriculum is the degree to which it encourages teachers to involve parents. Such involvement should not stop when children reach the preschool door. Teachers of young children should welcome family members in ways that go well beyond traditional parent activities, such as fundraising and annual parent-teacher conferences. Ongoing communication between parents and teachers has become increasingly important. Parents can be directly involved with the young child’s learning experiences as part of the extended classroom. They can participate in parent education and support groups, be encouraged to observe the classroom, and, in general, take a more active role in their child’s education both at school and at home (Bredekamp 1987). The preschool teacher needs to respond to the diversity among families. Parent activities need to be responsive to the language and culture of the family and be tailored to meet specific needs of teen parents, single parents, working parents, blended families, and families with special service needs. The home environment offers those teachable moments that teachers can only dream about. Children with interested and involved parents have better grades, test scores, long-term academic achievement, attitudes, and behavior than children with disinterested parents (Henderson 1988). Many studies emphasize the point that parent participation in education is very closely related to student achievement and that all forms of parent involvement help student achievement. A curriculum that provides support for the teacher will provide materials that can solicit the parent’s participation at home with regard to the day’s subject matter. A supportive curriculum will also promote communication tools to enable the teacher to easily communicate with the parent regarding the child’s progress and experiences, thus engaging parent interaction.
The research on children’s learning suggests that preschool and kindergarten experiences require an intellectually oriented approach in which children interact in small groups as they work together on projects that help them make increasing sense of their own experience. Studies in early childhood classrooms, in very diverse school settings and across a wide range of content areas, have revealed that students completing cooperative learning group tasks tend to have higher academic test scores, higher self-esteem, greater numbers of positive social skills, fewer stereotypes of individuals of other races or ethnic groups, and greater comprehension of the content and skills they are studying (Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec 1993; Slavin 1991; Stahl and VanSickle 1992). Students who work as “academic loners” in classrooms have very different perspectives from that of students working cooperatively and collaboratively in and as “cooperative learning academic teams” (Stahl in Stahl and VanSickle 1992). Thus, the curriculum should include group activities that are investigations of worthwhile topics. These activities should strengthen children’s dispositions to observe, experiment, inquire, and examine more closely the worthwhile aspects of their environment. They usually include constructions and dramatic play as well as a variety of early literacy and numeracy activities that arise from the work of the investigation and the tasks of summarizing findings and sharing experiences (Katz 1987). This becomes especially important when new information is introduced.
Creative Arts and Dramatic Play Activities:
According to research, creative activities can be combined with the teacher’s goals of gradually introducing children to new art materials and creative techniques. Edwards and Hiler point out several aspects of young children’s learning that are important to consider when thinking about art and creative activities: First, young children are developmentally capable of classroom experiences which call for (and practice) higher level thinking skills, including ANALYSIS (breaking down material into component parts to understand the structure, seeing similarities and differences); SYNTHESIS (putting parts together to form a new whole, rearranging, reorganizing); and EVALUATION (judging the value of material based on definite criteria). Second, young children want and need to express ideas and messages through many different expressive avenues and symbolic media. Young children form mental images, represent their ideas, and communicate with the world in a combination of ways. They need increasing competence and integration across formats including words, gestures, drawings, paintings, sculpture, construction, music, dramatic play, movement, and dance. Through sharing and gaining others’ perspectives, and then revisiting and revising their work, children move to new levels of awareness. Children also need the facilitation of the teacher to act as a guide. In doing this, the teacher must be careful not to arbitrarily impose adult ideas, but simply guide the children in their expression. Third, young children learn through meaningful activities in which different subject areas are integrated. Open-ended discussions and activities bring together science, social studies, dramatic play, and artistic creation. Activities that are meaningful and relevant to the child’s life experiences provide opportunities to teach across the curriculum and assist children in seeing the interrelationships of things they are learning (Edwards & Hiler 1993). A curriculum that uses a thematic approach provides the best opportunity for this type of interrelation webbing among different subject areas.
Mathematics in the early years is not just a simpler version of mathematics that children will learn later. Rather, teaching about mathematics in early childhood classrooms provides foundational concepts that are key to understanding more formal and abstract ideas. To understand counting and/or measurement, children first need to be aware of what can be counted and/or measured. They need to line things up, to cover spaces with blocks that fit together, and to pour sand or water from one container to another. If children are going to understand geometric principles, they first must put together blocks to make new shapes and to recognize the difference between a triangle and a rectangle. In short, children need to experience the applications of mathematics in their everyday lives. The preschool classroom provides the perfect context to integrate and involve children in discovering these foundational mathematical concepts. As mentioned in the previous section, “Thematic Instruction,” the thematic approach provides an appropriate context for teaching math to preschool children (Indiana State Department of Education 1990). Both Pestalozzi, in the 19th century, and Montessori, in the early 20th century, advocated the active involvement of children in the learning process. In every decade since 1940, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has encouraged the use of manipulatives at all grade levels (NCTM 2000). Every recent issue of the “Arithmetic Teacher” has described uses of manipulatives. In fact, the entire February 1986 issue considered answers to the practical questions of why, when, what, how, and with whom manipulative materials should be used (Heddens 1986). Research suggests that manipulatives are particularly useful in helping young children prepare to move from the concrete to the abstract level. An early childhood curriculum will offer activities and manipulatives appropriately to support teachers in their introduction of mathematical foundations that will support the introduction of abstract symbols (Heddens 1986).