Early Childhood Curriculum
When it comes to Early Childhood Education (ECE), there are many questions that arise. Questions such as what is Early Childhood curriculum? What types of programs are available? What schools are best for my child? Does my child need preschool or prekindergarten? And many more. For children in low-income situations, early childhood programs have proven to increase school readiness and helps narrow the achievement gap because they are the most likely to be at risk of early school failure. Prior research suggests that having a curriculum in one of the most important aspects of quality in Early Childhood Education (Duncan & Magnusun, 2013) because it provides a framework to guide interactions and activities in the classroom. This finding has helped to motivate the expansion of federal and state-funded Early Childhood Education programs. As of 2017, approximately 1.5 million children, 33 percent of 4-year-olds and 5 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in state funded preschool programs (NIEER, 2017), with most programs using an established curriculum to promote positive development and prepare children for school.
Many curriculum programs are available for not only schools to choose from but parents choosing schools for their children. For parents, this can be a daunting task as there is no clear guidance which exists to help choose the one that is the most effective at promoting children’s readiness skills. Also unclear is how different types of curricula compare with each other. There have been few studies completed that compare the effects of different types of curricula. In the following paragraphs, I will present four different curriculum approaches which include Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and play-based. I will discuss each program’s background with curricula such as their philosophy, vision, and beliefs. I will also discuss teacher training and professional development opportunities. Finally, I will compare and contrast learning strategies and their impacts on Early Childhood Education.
What is Curriculum?
Before diving into the curricula each program offers, it is important to understand what is meant by the word curriculum. Our textbook defines curriculum as the following, “the curriculum is a set of plans made for guiding learning in the schools, usually represented in retrievable documents of several levels of generality, and the actualization of those plans in the classroom, as experienced by the learners and as recorded by an observer; those experiences take place in a learning environment that also influences what is learned” (Glatthorn, 2015). In other words, curriculum can be a philosophy, a program, an approach, or specific purchased materials. As soon as a child walks into the classroom, curriculum for Early Childhood Education begins. Having daily routines, providing self-help learning and life-skill development, structured and non-structured activities are all part of a child’s day (Dougherty, 2017) and part of the curriculum. Schools offer different approaches and philosophies. Some focus on group projects while others focus on creative play and individual learning. Some schools will include traditional academic learning while others will promote play as the primary learning focus. It is important to know what you are looking for in order to meet the needs of your child’s learning style and personality.
The first school I will present is the Montessori school. The Montessori school was developed in 1907 by an Italian educator and physician named, Maria Montessori. Her philosophy is that children are individual learners and teachers are the guides. A developmental approach to learning is taken in this program. The Montessori method focuses on hands-on learning, nature, and creativity with little direction from the teacher. Play materials are designed for specific purposes, which guide the activities of the child. For example, there are special self-corrective Montessori toys called manipulatives which means that a child knows if they constructed a puzzle correctly based on the toy fitting together, not because someone showed the child how to do it (Brown, 2013). The goal is to develop the child’s academic ability, character, senses, and practical life skills (Ahdan, 2018). Practical life skills such as planning, organizing, time management, and flexible thinking. Montessori schools provide the support children need to build these practical skills at home, in early care and education programs, and in other settings they experience regularly which is one of society’s most important responsibilities (Povell, 2017).
The Montessori approach fosters children to be responsible by encouraging them to take care of their own personal needs and belongings. Children in the Montessori atmosphere are expected to clean up their toys, pour their own drink, prepare their snack, and dispose of their trash. The Montessori setting includes young children of all ages. Children in this setting are encouraged to learn together and from each other. Children with special needs can benefit from this individual focus on learning since learning is accomplished at an individual pace. According to experts, children that perform better with guided learning or rigid schedules may have a difficult time learning in the Montessori environment (Ahdan, 2018). Montessori instructors must obtain an early childhood degree along with certification in the Montessori method.
The Waldorf philosophy is based on the ideas of Austrian educator and writer Rudolf Steiner. The first school with the Waldorf philosophy was founded in 1919. Holistic and integrative elements of the Waldorf concept and a unique epistemological and methodological fountain with respect to a man’s development represent some of the main singularities on which Waldorf pedagogy was based (Pavlovic, 2017). The Waldorf preschools nurture the body, spirit, and soul of a child as well as primarily focus on the Waldorf approach which creates a strong enthusiasm for learning and develops the innate abilities and talents of the child (Ahdan, 2018). Steiner was troubled by the overly academic emphasis of schools and felt that the artistic side of children needed to be highly respected and developed along with children’s intellectual growth (Honeybloom, 2013). Handicraft, art, and music are all a vital part of the curriculum which embodies Steiner’s holistic approach to early childhood development. The Waldorf programs rely on a dependable routine in which daily and weekly schedules are consistent. Children who learn best from predictable routines thrive in this environment.
Students develop a profound and trustworthy relationship with their instructor because unlike most schools, the Waldorf program has the students remain with the same instructor through their early childhood and elementary careers. Furniture, play objects, and a group-oriented learning curriculum makes the Waldorf school feel like home. Children’s activities are guided by teachers. Students engage in creative learning through play, reading, singing, and cooking projects. The goal is to develop the child’s emotional, intellectual, and physical needs. Before age 7, the Waldorf curriculum is multidisciplinary; children learn through imitation and doing, bodily exploration, imaginary play in which activities help the child grow physically, intellectually, and emotionally (Honeybloom, 2013). While learning through imitation, this includes both verbal and non-verbal. Various forms of non-verbal communication such as gestures and movements of adults, serve as an example of desired behavior and are of greatest significance in the field of interactive influence of adults on developing a wholesome and healthy child’s personality (Pavlovic, 2017).
Waldorf instructors must obtain special training through the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. Here, teachers study the philosophy of Steiner which is a combination of anthroposophy, also known as Spiritual Science, and his religious ideas which attempt to explain human beings, and the world at large based on material and esoteric-spiritual aspects in which human beings are made up of a body, soul, and spirit (Uceda, 2015). Teachers also learn about the true art of education and the three golden rules. Steiner postulated these golden rules in the Waldorf method of institutional education: receive a child with gratitude from the world it comes; educate a child with love; and lead a child into the true freedom which belongs to humankind (Pavlovic, 2017).
During the 1940s in Italy, the townspeople of Reggio Emilia formed the Reggio Emilia school based on highly successful preschools. Like Montessori schools, students in Reggio Emilia take responsibility for learning. This approach emphasizes exploration and primarily focuses on the importance of self-expression and community (Ahdan, 2018). The curriculum focuses on projects that are of interest to the students. Projects are open-ended, student-led and focus on socially-based project work as these are key to children achieving deeper conceptual understandings.
The role of the teacher is to observe the students in their interests then guide them to create projects to explore their curiosities. Teacher’s frame the projects so children investigate which lead them to envision practical applications and opportunity to apply their discovered knowledge in a real-world context. Learning environments are led by teachers who listen to children’s idea then provide them with choices in the classroom and access to materials on a daily basis that gives the children a level of autonomy, and the opportunity to explore independently (Gardner, 2016). Students in this setting learn from their mistakes. The Reggio curriculum advocates for project work that provides students with opportunities to take leadership roles, plan with group members, make decisions, delegate tasks, share resources and ideas, and develop a sense of ownership over the process (Gardner, 2016). There is no set curriculum in the Reggio Emilia schools since it is all student project based. Student successes are shown through the use of documentation panels. Documentation panels are displayed in the hallways, classrooms, and other learning environments and are filled with photographs, student drawings, constructions, anecdotal notes, and teacher and child reflections on the learning process (Gardner, 2016). Observations, documentation, photographs, and records allow teachers to communicate with parents about their child’s progress.
The Reggio Emilia method is a hands-on, student-led, exploratory, play-based approach to learning. The learning communities that define the schools of Reggio Emilia include the parents, teachers, and the larger community in which the school resides (Gardner, 2016). Teachers develop a close relationship with their students which helps to not only support and guide them but also motivates the students to pursue and learn from their interests. Children who are learning the English language seem to do well in this environment because it allows these students to express themselves through creativity in a world they are still learning about. Because there is no formal curriculum in the Reggio Emilia preschool, teachers need no formal training or credentials to teach in Reggio Emilia preschools. Reggio Emilia schools offer many possibilities for students in which they are provided opportunities to explore, express themselves creatively, and are empowered by their teachers and their learning environments (Gardner, 2016). In conclusion, the success of the Reggio-inspired approach is not by chance, but instead, is because the Reggio Emilia Approach fosters students’ empowerment, promotes the usefulness of the content, facilitates students’ success, ignites students’ interest, and creates a caring environment that nurtures students’ learning (Gardner, 2016).
The last curriculum I chose to focus on is play-based learning. Play-based learning is just that; children are learning while playing. Play-based learning is important for a child’s social, emotional, physical, cognitive, and language development. When children play, they learn to communicate emotions, think, be creative and problem solve. Children who are provided play opportunities in same-age and multi-age settings broaden their own understandings of the social world and of language diversity (Smith, 2015). As with Montessori, play-based learning is child-centered. Within the classroom, there are many child-direct centers that can be set up to fuel positive social interactions. Some of those centers include dramatic play, listening center, science exploration cart, manipulatives, creative writing center, and painting/drawing expressive center. Play-based social relationships at early ages is also an effective means of reducing the incidence of anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems for young children (Smith, 2015).
Physical activity is another important aspect of play-based learning. Physical activity helps decrease stress and children learn to gain a sense of control. In play-based learning, play does not compete with academics but rather enhances learning. Through pretend play, children are able to reenact joyful events in their lives and confront troubling ones, often playing them out in ways that give the children a sense of power and mastery over people and situations in which they have little power (Wittmer, 2015). Play also boosts children’s problem solving skills and creative thinking skills which are necessary throughout life. Young children need to be provided with an environment rich in diversity, opportunity, and language, in order to form a foundation for many other skills children will learn later in life. Play-based learning in preschool and prekindergarten provides them with all these opportunities.
Play-based learning also helps children strengthen their language skills. Teachers are used as positive role models in which children can create, practice, and promote their own language skills. Through play, children can learn to express themselves, learn self-control, appropriate and acceptable behaviors, and become more independent. Play-based learning exposes children to many things that promote language development including dramatic play, listening and literacy centers, and both adult and peer social interactions. When children engage in these activities, they are engaging in conversations and learning to communicate with each other. This type of exposure allows children to experiment and practice a variety of forms of communication such as word use, phrasing, gestures, and body language, inflection, listening skills, and so on (Wittmer, 2013). Play-based learning is not only a curriculum but a practice that can be incorporated easily into any preschool setting.
There is a plethora of curricula to choose from when it comes to school. As an early childhood educator and a parent, I feel it is important that no matter which program you choose to place your child in, they are going to reap many benefits from an early childhood experience. In speaking with a handful of community members that choose not to place their child in an Early Childhood Education program, I often ask why. The answer I hear the most is, “my child doesn’t need to go to preschool or prekindergarten. They already know their numbers and letters and they will just be bored.” But as you have read from the research above, Early Childhood Education is way more than just children learning their numbers and letters. Early Childhood Education programs are designed in different ways to meet individual needs and build experiences to help develop the child as a whole emotionally, socially, cognitively, and physically. Children who attend Early Childhood Education programs attain increased readiness for kindergarten.
In researching this topic, there are many new ideas that have contributed to my knowledge about curriculum. First and foremost, I had the opportunity to gain a deeper awareness and understanding about curricula I have heard about on the surface but didn’t really understand what the origin, philosophy, and beliefs of the curriculum were about. I not only have a greater comprehension about different curriculum available but I gained a great amount of knowledge and information I can incorporate to align with the standards in my classroom. The curricula of choice in our school district’s Early Childhood Education program is play-based learning. Although I was aware, by firsthand accounts, that play-based learning is an effective curriculum, it was still interesting to read the research behind the developmental appropriateness of the program and the benefits children have when they attend this type of program.
Even though each curriculum has its own name, unique origin, philosophy, and beliefs, I was interested to read that the Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and play-based learning curriculum had some similarities as well. The most notable similarity is that any child entering one of these programs would gain notable kindergarten readiness skills along with increased skills and knowledge about real-world experiences. The preschools mentioned above all help develop a foundation for learning. They also support the skills necessary for students to become lifelong learners.
There are many ways would apply this learning to my teaching. Throughout this research, I have learned that decisions are made from a broad perspective and with deep knowledge. Professional development helps ensure the written, the taught, and the learned curriculum are brought into closer alignment.
Early Childhood Curriculum