Posts Tagged early childhood

Beware Early Childhood ‘Education,’ Think Learning Instead

Published by — There are times when school gets in the way of learning.


From the President of the United States to the President of the Rhode Island Senate, early-childhood education is shaping up to be one of this year’s ed obsessions.

We’ve been here before, of course.  Head Start, a signature program from the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, was designed to improve reading readiness among low-income pre-schoolers.  Unfortunately decades of evidence show the academic gains disappearing by grade 3.  There might be lots of reasons for this, including sending those kids to crummy K-3 schools.  But my take-away is that early schooling didn’t build a good foundation for more school.  Low-income kids mainly suffer a poverty of positive experiences that ignite their own innate appetites for learning.

But a source of critical concern is the vast disparity between the vocabularies of low-income children and their middle-class peers, immortalized by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in The 30 milion word gap by age 3.  Urban children’s vocabularies put them at a huge academic disadvantage.  Later researchers such as Ruby Payne and Eric Jensen confirmed not only the scale of the gap itself, but also significant differences in the kinds of words low-income kids hear — fewer words of praise, more direct orders, and fewer open-ended questions soliciting their thoughts or efforts to formulate answers.

As the sage E.D. Hirsch says:  vocabulary is intelligence.  The size of a kid’s vocabulary is indicative of the size of her intellectual world, the foundation on which to build more information, skills and intelligence.  Children have different gifts, to be sure, but those gifts are enhanced by rich experiences and opportunities to talk about them.

Sadly, pundits and pols still believe that the solution is early-childhood “education.”  Read:  classrooms.  The idea of starting children ever earlier in classrooms gives me the willies.

Learning, yes.  Academics, not so much.

At this year’s Child-Friendly Cities conference, keynote Jens Troelsen began his remarks by saying that he not only grew up in a veritable heaven, but that he was exceedingly popular, since everyone wanted to play at his house.  He grew up on a farm.  There was a stream to dam up or float boats, animals to play with, bales of hay to make structures.  Of course, that was in Denmark, where Stranger Danger and obsession with safety have yet to paralyze parenting.  His point was that he and his friends were learning a ton, chatting up a storm as they negotiated games and projects, while having a blast.  The rhythms of farm life teach much science, without explicit instruction.  Troelsen twinkles as he talks about it.

For a more citified version, I recommend visiting urban Waldorf-inspired “learning environments,” which look nothing like whiteboard-plastered classrooms.  The wealth of toys for imaginary play are free of Disney characters, passive entertainment and cheap plastic.  The play areas mimic houses with kitchens, dining rooms, doll bedrooms, clothing closets.  Kids like to play at being adults.  And they like exploring sand and water, or making collections of rocks, bones, or whatever’s intriguing.  On a school visit I watched distinctly urban kids dash and scream, perhaps a bit more than the adults liked.  After being cooped up indoors with electronics, they were thrilled to have many choices as to what to do, and others to do it with.  The teacher’s job included monitoring children’s vocabularies with fun story-telling assessments, to ensure they were acquiring words at an accelerated rate.  They had techniques for helping those falling behind and worked with parents on game-like activities to do at home.  None of it felt academic.  Rich and brain-building, but not premature school.

Even more daring and exhilarating are the forest kindergartens of Europe and elsewhere (including New Hampshire).  Four to seven-year olds hang outside all year round.  A movie about a Swiss school shows them managing fierce cold with sledding, huddling around kid-made fires, and generally scurrying around like little animals out in nature.  Again, teachers support learning from a slight distance to oversee proper use of tools, and read to them daily. A doctor interviewed in the film says he’s never had to treat a kid for ADD who’d attended such a kindergarten.  They know how to amuse themselves exploring the world, with great concentration, and as such are well-prepared for school later on.

The young brain is hard-wired to suck up information.

Memorable experiences build synapses that should have trunks like oaks and branches that resemble well-fed crabapple trees.  Such experiences invite discussion and whet appetites for learning.

To my mind, what the three kinds of early-childhood experiences mentioned above have in common are charm and beauty.  Raw nature, cultivated farms, and even cultivated learning spaces are sensual, visual, physical, living places.  There, kids can thrive, learning to handle autonomy and calculating risks for themselves.

But well-meaning minds are stuck in the sterility of “early-childhood education.”  There are times when school gets in the way of learning.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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Rich School Opportunities Reduce Poverty of Experience

Published by — Giving young children opportunities to invent and play through activities like storytelling can have a remarkable impact on a child’s development.

Today, a 4-year-old charmer we’ll call Jason will tell a story all by himself.  When  Mariposa Pre-School’s Head Teacher, Meghan McDermott asks if I can listen in too, his face lights up like post-rain sunshine.  I double his captive audience.  He likes attention.

Jason settles in by handling and talking to himself about the toy props on the table.  He buttons the jacket onto naughty Peter Rabbit and checks the shoes that Peter will lose in his harrowing escape from grumpy old Farmer McGregor, also close at hand.

For two weeks, Mariposa Pre-school in Providence immerses their class of core-urban 4-year-olds in a story.  They read and discuss it for a little over a week.  Then they give it a rest for a day.  McDermott collects props from Mariposa’s wealth of toys available for fantasy play, and assembles the story’s scene on a special table.  Over two days, each child tells the story in his or her own words.  They can fetch another prop if they feel it’s necessary.  The story is now their own.

He starts by waving the Peter doll at us.  “Peter is a rabbit.  Peter squeezes his little body through the gate.”  And he threads the doll through the gate prop.  “He munched at the plant.  The… um… carrot!  And then he eats another.  And then a pepper.”  And so it goes with the doll performing the right tasks.

At Mariposa, kids love being the story-teller.  School staff remind parents to ask for a re-telling at home.  Which gives talkative Jason another chance to recount the drama.

How fun is that?

Well, way fun.  But here’s the kicker:  These re-tellings are a test.  Not the dreary regurgitate-dead-facts kind, but an evaluation of how much children are learning, given the opportunity to display their mastery.

McDermott records each child’s performance on her phone.  These mini-videos help the staff assess the child’s recall of the story, ability to follow the sequence, their growing vocabulary, and confidence at expressing themselves.  The school uses the GOLD Assessment System, which values “remembering and connecting experiences,” while playing down letter and letter-sound recognition which, according to the documentation, has only “moderate correlation with reading in the primary grades.”

I love it.  Piaget, the French psychologist, called the urge to push academic curriculum onto ever younger children “the American disease.”  Instead, enrich their opportunities to be kids.  Kids are hard-wired learners.

Mariposa is one of 6 pilot classrooms in Rhode Island that are part of a federal early-learning grant – so of course they must collect data and have assessments.  That’s what we do these days.  Mind you, assessments are a bad thing only when we use test results like hunting rifles to thin out an over-population of failures.

Actually, schools should be held accountable for offering kids genuine opportunities to do something all by themselves.  Autonomous mastery of a skill feeds self-esteem and love of learning far more effectively than gobs of misguided praise.

Four-year-olds can’t ride bikes by themselves, or write and produce dramatic skits, or complete Eagle Scout projects.  But they can tell coherent stories.  Proficient story-telling is a ancient, valued skill that will serve a lifetime – not that developing expert raconteurs is exactly Mariposa’s goal.

Mariposa’s director, Kristen Greene, explains that while the pre-school is influenced by the Waldorf philosophy and Reggio Emilia methods, “We’re creating something new, with our own curriculum.  But we keep the essential ideas of our influences.  So we teach that the world is a beautiful place.  And that there’s hope of great things.  Children are born ready to learn.  They need opportunities that allow their brains to be well nurtured so they can become confident learners.”

But there’s a scarcity of enriching opportunities in most urban kids’ lives.  Our fear-driven culture keeps kids indoors, away from the neighborhood that used to be their personal world.  Many are cut off entirely from nature.

As are the their families.  Greene says, “Parents tend to be a little afraid of any plaything that does not come out of a box.”

No park or green space surrounds the Wanskuck Boys and Girls Club, where Mariposa is housed.  Inventing encounters with the natural world requires creativity.

For a cold-weather celebration, the staff put a portable fire pit out in the asphalt parking lot, with stumps around it as seats.  Two parents asked if the fire itself was real.  The kids wouldn’t go near it.  Their only direct experience with fire might have been a burning building.  Slowly, the staff’s trusting relationships with the families drew everyone into a warm huddle around the fire.

Similarly, Greene wrote a grant for a bus to take them to Roger Williams Park four times a year.  The kids and as many of their family members as can go spend the day outside, with trees and ponds and a hill to roll down.  While staff helped kids see the world around them, the parents were wowed by the color of the azaleas just coming into bloom.  They looked with new eyes at the natural world.  Hopefully, now they’ll want to get out to explore parks and nature with their kids.

These opportunities boost learning.  Research says so.  Soaking up the glories of nature sparks scientific curiosity.

And becoming a pre-school story-teller builds confidence in communication.  Just ask Jason.  He has a story he’d just love to tell you.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and GoLocalWorcester.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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