When a young child walks into the school grounds on the first day, he or she is usually wide-eyed, full of hope and excitement coupled with great anxiety about this next great big step in their life…the enigma of BIG SCHOOL. It is a big deal. They have been built up by their parents and prior schooling centres about this great phenomenon called ‘school’. They arrive blissfully oblivious that for the next 13 years they will be part of the educational treadmill. Their little personalities will need to conform and bow to the expectations and constraints of their new school environment and all that is embedded in it. They are unaware that life as they have known it will alter radically. The innocence of childhood begins to be gnawed at, changing forever.
Some tackle their new life with trepidation, scurrying behind a parent’s leg, hiding and unwilling to engage, uneasy to separate. Others saunter in, with not a care in the world, backpack at the ready, find an activity and leave their mothers crying in their wake. They are ready to tackle this new challenge head on.
Every year, thousands of youngsters start on this incredible lifelong journey of learning. Kindergarten must continue to be the most wonderful experience that they should encounter. They expect it to be full of promise and fun. So it should be.
When those excited 4 and 5 year olds begin school, they come with an already established mind set, values and expectations and a wide variety of unusual pencil grips along with the ability to swipe iPhones, make videos and open applications! Many have experienced daycare and preschool environments from an early age. Their readiness to adapt to school life vastly differs amongst them. However, in our greater Port Macquarie area quality care and education has improved remarkably since I encountered my first group of Kindergarteners at SCAS in the early 2000’s.
This is an extraordinarily positive position for the early education sector in our community. Early childhood education prior to formal schooling is finally being recognised as valuable and of high importance in its own right in the early development of children – socially, emotionally, physically, spiritually and intellectually.
Exceptional daycare and preschool programmes, based on child-centred approaches and play based learning under the Early Years Learning Framework, are necessary for a successful transition to school life. Positive, authentic and inclusive early learning experiences will prepare a child socially and emotionally to cope with the transition to school.
Surprisingly to some parents the most important skills for learning success at school are not being able to count and add up, recite the ABC or even read or write, but being socially and emotionally ready. Without these, young children often struggle with the demands of Kindergarten. Being confident, being able to cooperate, showing natural curiosity, communicating needs and wants appropriately are vital for success at school.
If a child is able to listen and follow instructions, take turns, work independently and harmoniously in groups, they will learn and adapt to their new learning environment with ease.
Being part of the technological revolution of the C21 also places these young children ahead of the game. There was a time when children were taught at school how to use computers, now they arrive with many computer literacy skills consolidated. They are able to navigate through pages, they can type in www addresses and have effective mouse handling skills. They even show the educators how things work when necessary. They have a large knowledge base that they are able to draw from. However, this is in direct conflict to their social and emotional wellbeing. Instead of playing outdoors, they are sitting indoors at computers. Imagination and creativity is being eroded. These children have lost the art of being creative with sticks, leaves and stones. They are living in the age of instant gratification with the ‘bings’ and ‘tings’ of iPads and iPhones.
Yet there is a distinct difference between an early childhood setting and a Kindergarten classroom. Immediately the ratio of adult to child is halved – one in 20+ being the norm in Kindergarten in many schools. They need to sit cross-legged, hands in their laps on the mat, they need to raise their hand to speak, they need to work quietly at their desks to complete set tasks and the list goes on and on. They need to be organised, eat lunch during set times; look after their belongings and make choices about their behaviour and play. Time for Lego, Mobilo, dress ups or playing with dolls in the classroom has to make way for an increasingly overcrowded curriculum. Perhaps educators need to step back and begin to take control again of what is really critical to children’s development during this pivotal time.
The word ‘Kindergarten’ from the German literally means a ‘children’s garden’. In many northern European countries children are usually organised in multi age groups between 4 – 6 and no formal learning is introduced. Children learn through play and childhood is full of wonder and magic and is highly respected. When children start school at age 6 or 7, they are emotionally and socially ready, and passionate about learning. These youngsters quickly catch up with their peers who have been introduced to formal learning at a much earlier age.
As an educator, at times I get frustrated that so many wonderful elements of childhood get gobbled up in the first years of schooling. Play based learning is such a powerful tool that virtually gets pushed to the wayside as we make room for what has traditionally been parental responsibilities. The curriculum is so jam packed and children have to achieve set academic outcomes, often at the expense of the social and emotional ones. Sir Ken Robinson, an international leader in the development of education and creativity, has spoken extensively about the lack of creativity in curricula around the world. We are so focused on achieving outcomes that learning to see the world from diffeing perspectives is essentially lost.
“We are educating people out of their creativity.” (Ken Robinson, TED talk, Schools kill Creativity, 2006.)
Given the opportunity, children begin to make sense of the world around them through their natural play. They build relationships, learn to use language more effectively, resolve conflicts, begin to negotiate and regulate their behaviour. They can achieve success as they are making their own choices about their play. Many dispositions for attitudes towards learning are acquired through self-selected, self-directed play opportunities: imagination, optimism, interest, openness, concentration, resilience and creativity, and the beginnings of empathy.
With the limited amount of daily play during a school day, children still take big steps with their learning. We forget how they can be so powerful in creating curriculum that it takes a special educator to jump on those moments and take a path less travelled. We must respect these contributions and make the most of the opportunities given to us. Children can be our greatest teachers. We must value childhood – these youngsters only have one. Educators need to fully accept this and plan accordingly. We need to give children the credit that they deserve.
Children are so perceptive, we can learn so much from them. They are warm and caring and very respectful of each other. They are engaging and stimulating. They are confident and proud. Being egocentric is part of this developmental stage as they rotate in their own little bubble that is safe and family oriented. They display a sense of curiosity about the world and begin to solve problems more efficiently through their explorations of life. They know how to take care of themselves and each other; we just need to give them the space to be themselves. We must allow them to make mistakes, to learn from them.
Children are social creatures, they learn best from each other. Through their discoveries they unfold many mysteries together – we have to be the facilitators and provide opportunities and allow for hem to do it. They value each other’s contributions in their classroom and playground encounters. They display growing resilience with each day they attend school, they are positive in the face of adversity. They forgive and forget quickly. They care deeply and want to please themselves, their friends, families and teachers.
They too learn, like adults, that life is full of complexities. What is important to them is the here and now. Their sense of humour as they come to terms with the world as they see it is impressive. As early childhood educators we need to seize these moments and nurture this love for learning to ensure that it is maintained and that it continues to grow steadily. After all, children are natural learners.
As a Kindergarten educator I understand fully that children want to be at school, they want to learn, they want to have fun, and they want to be with their friends. Kindergarten should be a magical experience in every sense of the word. It is up to the educator to embrace this magic. The attributes are already there – a sense of wonder and curiosity, a sense of excitement during a ‘light bulb’ moment is a dream for any educator.
Every day I know that I am truly amazed and blessed at my children’s ability and capacity to make connections with their learning. The look in their eyes and the squeals of sheer delight when something connects is overwhelming. Their wisdom and incredible ability to show me that there are other ways of approaching a task or a situation is truly inspirational.
The children have always been my greatest encouragement. Their sense of humour leaves me chuckling on a daily basis…
‘What’s this?’ I ask,
‘What’s a chimney used for?’
‘For Santa of course, Ms. Kiehn.’
Yep, not for heating anymore!
And a little boy, after 6 lessons of German, stated, ‘I love German, I want to speak it forever!’
And then I feel slightly guilty after a young child completes a task and innocently asks ‘can I play now?’
Kindergarten is certainly a place where magic happens and it could be enhanced through careful analysis of what has to be in the curriculum.
We should free up time for greater creativity through allowing children time to play. Play simply for the purpose of play, for the freedom to explore because it is a right of the child as recognised by the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Play because playing is fun. Play because it is intrinsically motivated. Play because it is spontaneous and voluntary. Play because a child can disappear into their own world of make believe to sort out their here and now. Play for simply being actively involved. Playing to learn. Learning through play.
Albert Einstein summed it up beautifully, ‘play is the highest form of research.’
Let us listen to the children. Let the children play!