Early childhood programs use child development theories to inform their practice. High-quality programs know that grounding program practices in sound theory leads to better outcomes for children. When programs use real, hands-on experiences to teach children about their world, it is due to the influence of the cognitive developmental model. Likewise, when programs include family involvement or community connections, we can thank the influence of the ecological systems theory. The next section will take a look at some programmatic approaches which are combinations of theory and practice which create specific curriculum choices.
High scope is a program model that is child-centered and provides children with hands-on experiences. Its roots are unique – it originated from a research-based preschool program in Michigan in the 1960s called the Perry Preschool Project. The goal of the Perry Preschool Project was to enroll low-income children in high quality preschool experiences to see if it would improve their life outcomes. The researcher David Weikart followed the children’s progress for decades to measure the results. Weikart chose to include low-income children because, in comparison to middle-income children, children in low-income households are at greater risk for lowered academic achievement, have lower rates of high school graduation, higher rates of crime, and a higher likelihood of poverty later in life. The goal of the Perry Preschool project was to counter the effects of poverty early in life. This was one of the first and most published pieces of scientific research to investigate how economic investments in early childhood education could have long-term benefits to the child, the family, and to society. The idea was that if you give a child a strong start early on, it will pay off when they become adolescents and adults. What the researchers hoped for came true. Children who participated in the Perry Preschool Project had greater academic achievement, greater high school graduation rates, lower rates of crime, and higher adult earnings than their low-income peers who were not in the preschool project. This study showed that access to high-quality preschool programs in the first few years of life can have long-term benefits for the child. This research highlighted the importance of the early years of a child’s life in influencing the course of their future.
So, what was the magic formula of the Perry Preschool Project? There were several components, but two main pieces stand out. The classroom system of plan-do-review and family involvement. Plan-Do-Review is a system that helps children organize their play activities. Children gather in a circle and the teacher asks them what activity center they plan to play in during the morning free play time. The choices range from blocks and art to dramatic play or puzzles. Children make their choice to the group, such as “I plan to play with Jakeem in the blocks area. We are going to build a really big bridge!”. After the children make their plans, they go and do the activity of their choice. It is okay if kids switch activities or change their plans during this time. After free play, the children return to the circle and report back on how their plans went. Did Jakeem and his friend build a successful bridge? What went well? Did anything unexpected happen? The teacher will ask these types of probing questions to get the children to think about their activities. This method supports cognitive development because it involves planning. Children are able to explore their world and engage in hands-on activities. The plan-do-review helps to support their memory development and helps them to develop concentration, attention, and focus, all skills which are related to the academics they will engage in when they enter elementary school.
The second main component of the Perry Preschool Project was family involvement. Families were visited in their homes by teachers to create connections between what was happening in the classroom and at home. When a child learns a concept in class, it should not stay in class. Having families participate in learning at home can help create layers of learning for the child. It also provides an opportunity for parent support and education. This approach aligns with the ecological model in that the family and community are integrated into a child’s early childhood education setting, supporting development using the multiple contexts involved in a child’s life.
The High Scope model follows the findings from the Perry Preschool Project. It has taken those evidence-based strategies and created a program model to serve children in early learning settings. It is the embodiment of the philosophy that family income need not be the sole determining factor in children’s academic and life outcomes.
A similar program to the Perry Preschool Project is Head Start. Head Start is a preschool program which also has its roots in researching ways to improve the lives of children in poverty. Head Start research has found similar results to the Perry Preschool, and with comparable methods. Head Start has become a long-term, nationwide program that still exists today. Indeed, many Head Start programs even follow the High Scope method. These programs demonstrate the need and effectiveness of high-quality preschool programs.
The Developmental Interaction approach was founded by Lucy Sprague Mitchell, an education reformer who developed innovate ideas for educating children and helped to professionalize teaching for women. Mitchell also founded the Bank Street College of Education in New York. The developmental interaction approach, sometimes called the Bank Street approach, focuses on developing the child in all areas – physical, intellectual, social, and emotional. Teachers in the Developmental Interaction approach see learning as a holistic process and consider developmental domains (physical, intellectual, social, and emotional) as inherently interconnected. It emphasizes meeting children where they are and providing opportunities for making choices. It is play-based, so children have lots of free time to explore on their own terms. It also emphasizes the child’s role in society – another nod to the ecological model of child development.
The Montessori approach to education was developed by Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator who was interested in reforming the way children learn in group settings. The Montessori method has distinct key features that make it stand out from other approaches. One such feature is mixed-age groups in a single class. Children in Montessori classrooms can range from 2.5 to 5 years old. This means that there is a great deal of peer learning happening. Older children can model behavior for younger children, which can help facilitate learning better than direct instruction from a teacher.
Another feature of Montessori classroom is the concept of constructivism. Montessori classrooms rely on a carefully structured classroom with materials that children can use to discover new concepts on their own using real life materials. Items are often made from natural materials to give the child a realistic concept of the weight of an object based on its size. In order to deeply engage with materials, children are given a large block of free play time – usually about 2.5 to 3 hours. During this time, teachers will help children on an individual or small group level with materials. The materials have an emphasis on child development. Some may involve fine motor skills, like threading beads on a string, and some may promote problem solving, a part of cognitive development, such ordering pegs into holes by size and shape. Many activities are related to practical life: washing dishes, placing flowers in a vase, and cleaning up after oneself. Materials for practical life are always child-sized so that the child can feel that she can master the activity without unnecessary impediments. There is a strong emphasis on completion. Children will not be interrupted by a teacher when they are in the middle of a task, as this is thought to disrupt learning. Independence is also emphasized. Children are encouraged to learn how to use buttons and zippers in order to dress themselves at an early age. Teachers without a Montessori background are often surprised to see the abilities of a two-and-a-half-year-old getting a jacket on and zipping it alone.
Mealtimes in Montessori centers can often differ from those of traditional classrooms. When a meal is served, children will be invited to the table and asked to join when they are ready. There is no large-scale, formal transition from playtime to lunchtime. If a child is still working on an activity, then he may complete it in as much time as he wishes. Typically, children gather around the table more or less at the same time, but it happens organically. Children are drawn to the smell of food and a chance to visit with playmates at the table. Children serve themselves and pour their own milk using child-sized utensils and milk pitchers. At the end of the meal, children clear their own dishes and place them on a cart after removing unfinished food.
With such a free environment, how do teachers encourage classroom harmony in a Montessori classroom? Teachers use guidance strategies that are similar to other approaches, but children often learn from observing older peers. If a 3-year-old is approaching the art easel for the first time, she may watch a 5-year-old first. She may observe her peer carefully dipping the brush into the cup, keeping paint on the paper, and wiping up any spills with a cloth. Sometimes, this way of learning how to use and respect classroom materials can resonate more with a young child than when a teacher outlines strict rules for how to properly use paint.
Waldorf schools originated in Germany and were developed by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Waldorf programs have a strong emphasis on everyday practical activities and centers are designed to resemble a home in order to facilitate this. Cooking, cleaning, sewing, and building are all activities that children engage in in a Waldorf program. There is a strong emphasis on oral storytelling, creative arts, and music. Historically, Waldorf programs included mystical and religious elements, but most modern programs typically do not. Children are encouraged to engage in free play using toys and activities made of natural materials. Like in Montessori programs, the belief is that children are more connected to toys and tools that are made of wood rather than plastic, as it is more aesthetically pleasing and facilitates a connection to nature. In that spirit, Waldorf classrooms include organic materials such as acorns, shells and wool that are used for counting games, art, and storytelling. Academic subjects are integrated with one another – math is taught through storytelling, combining mathematical problem solving with language development. This helps promote cognitive development in a holistic way. Teachers facilitate early math activities using small wool dolls and other natural, tangible materials. However, formal learning of letters and numbers are not pushed upon young children in Waldorf schools. It is the belief that children will come around to letter and number identification when they are ready, and that is usually not until the age of 6 or 7 years, which is when it is formally introduced in Waldorf schools. Interestingly, this coincides with most modern European educational systems as well. Preschools in the United States on the other hand, typically begin letter and number identification well before age 5 (although this is beginning to change). This variation is a valuable lesson in cultural differences in developmentally appropriate practice.
Another key feature of Waldorf program is the daily rhythm. While many preschools follow a daily schedule with specific hour or minute intervals, Waldorf programs follow a rhythm instead. What matters here is the order of the day, not how long each activity takes. So daily activities always follow the same sequence but may not be at the same time every day. In the morning, for example, the teacher may invite the children to help bake bread or make soup for the lunch. Children gather around kneading dough or chopping vegetables (children are encouraged to learn knife safety at an early age), and as they finish, they may disperse into other activities like sewing, building with blocks, or dancing with scarves. Another teacher might gather a group of students to invite them to hear a story that she is telling using puppets and props to act out the plot. Children may naturally come and go from the story based on what they are interested in playing with at that time. When the lunch is ready, the teacher will invite children to the table with a song and, often times, by lighting a candle (children are also taught safety around the candle). There is no set time, but meals are typically served at about the same time each day. Children rely on the order of events to help them predict their environment. A difference of 15 or 20 minutes makes no difference to them, however. This focus on rhythm is also reflected in the practice of honoring the changing of seasons. Waldorf programs also include rituals that celebrate the rhythms of nature. This gives the children a connection to the larger system of which they are a part.
The Reggio Emilia approach takes its name from the Italian city where it originated. A constructivist approach, the Reggio method provides encouragement that children should explore their world using hands-on methods that are child-directed. The approach was developed by Loris Malaguzzi following WWII. It was his belief that children should be able to freely express themselves. In that vein, Reggio programs encourage arts and music. One core belief in the Reggio approach is the Hundred Languages of Children, or the ability of children to express their thoughts and feelings through arts such as painting, sculpting, and drawing. Indeed, Reggio programs are known for their emphasis on beautiful artwork. Children’s art is displayed on the wall at the child’s eye level, often with a description of the work written by the teacher in the child’s own words. This honors the child’s creative spirit and helps promote healthy emotional development. Another feature of the original Reggio school in Italy is the connection to community. The children there learn directly from members of the community, and the community members feel responsible for taking part in children’s education. American programs emulate this goal with strong parental involvement. US programs are referred to as “Reggio inspired” because the true Reggio schools in Italy have the connection to community that is unique to that location. The Reggio approach believes that children learn from adults, peers, and the environment. The environment is thought to be the “third teacher” and is set up so that children can explore independently as their interests guide them. Spaces are set up with natural light, living plants, and materials that encourage creativity.
Forest schools originated in Sweden and other European countries and their popularity has spread to the United States in recent years. The concept of forest schools is that children spend their whole day outdoors, in all weather. All activities take place outside – stories, art, construction, and even meals. Children are dressed in appropriate clothing for all weather so that they are comfortable and safe while outside. Many of the same activities that take place in indoor preschools also happen in forest preschools. Children create art, often using natural materials, but also use paint, clay, and crayons. Science activities are well-suited to a forest environment, as children can collect leaves and rocks to sort and categorize, or examine bugs using a microscope. An outdoor environment lends itself well to construction projects, which may include building a tower with blocks or building a giant fort out of sticks, branches, and rope. Forest schools often have a covered shelter or area where materials are kept in bins and teachers can take out the materials at the start of each day so that children have access to all the things they need for free play. Teachers do circle time, read books, and sing songs, the same as in a typical preschool. Mealtimes take place at outdoor tables and children wash hands using an outdoor hand washing station. Usually children do not sleep outdoors, so forest schools are typically either half-day programs or include only children who are old enough to not need naptime. Children in forest schools have a strong connection to nature and it is believed to provide many health and developmental benefits.
On a related note, in July 2021 Washington State became the first state to permanently license outdoor, nature-based childcare for preschool and school-age children under a new Senate Bill 5151. This comes after a four-year outdoor preschool pilot program and gave DCYF the ability to set the precedent as the first state in the nation to develop licensing requirements for outdoor education.
How can a child’s individual culture be reflected in program approaches?
Theories give us insight about how children develop. There are seven major theories on child development, and each one is useful in understanding children’s needs at a given age. It is important that teachers have a deep knowledge of children in order to create learning experiences that support development. High-quality early childhood programs must be informed by theory. There are a variety of approaches and philosophies in early childhood program models, and each has its own unique benefits. One thing that all program models have in common is the connection to theory that supports children’s optimal development.